On the morning commute down I-55 into downtown Chicago, amidst the sound of humming cars, Chicagoans are busy going about their morning routine. Men stare into the small windows of their sun visors shaving their beards, others are finishing off their breakfasts, using their knees to control the steering wheel. Amidst this fervor of communication and technology, distracted driving is inescapable. It was a hot summer day, my windows were rolled down as I inched along in bumper to bumper traffic. I glanced into the rearview mirror for just a second to fix my lipstick when—THUD—I was in a fender. I was eighteen, terrified, and I had not realized the dangers of driving distracted. I knew that texting and driving was dangerous, but I only then realized than any type of distracted driving can be dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, In 2014, approximately 431,000 people were seriously injured and 3,179 lost their lives due to distracted driving. If I had the opportunity to give my younger self advice on how to stay safe on the road, I would say that distracted driving and drunk driving are both incredibly dangerous behaviors. In order to keep myself and others on the road safe, I would encourage myself to follow a protocol to avoid driving distracted, to drive extra cautiously in bad weather, and to pledge to never drive drunk.
There are many misconceptions regarding what distracted driving is and the impacts it can have on a community. Although most people consider cell phones the primary cause of distracted driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distracted driving as any activity which diverts a person’s attention from driving. In order to keep myself safe, I would encourage my younger self to avoid doing these behaviors behind the wheel. Growing up, I thought the widespread popularity of hands free devices meant that they were safe to be used while driving. This is a very common misconception that I wish my younger self would have known earlier. Hands-free devices are not actually safe to use while driving. The National Safety Council argues that hands free is not risk free because the use of a phone is a distraction which diverts the drivers attention and puts at risk the other people on the road. Because of this, any sort of device should be powered off before beginning to drive. As an emerging teen, I would continuously fidget with the radio, unaware of the implications of my actions. I would often see my friends glancing at their phones, replying to a quick text from their boyfriend or girlfriend. I used to think that the time it took to send a text did not constitute a significant risk to others or myself. However, I have since learned a driver’s eyes are off the road for five full seconds while sending a text.
Besides driving distracted, as a novice driver, I did not realize how dangerous driving in inclement weather could be. Rain not only reduces your own visibility, but it makes it harder for others on the road to see you as well. Because of the unpredictable Chicago weather, the winter and early spring months are particularly dangerous do to snow and sleet. The best advice to stay safe during these conditions it to reduce speeds five to ten miles per hour below the speed limit. I would also encourage my younger self to make sure that my car was properly equipped for these changes in weather. I used to drive around with a half broken, squeaky wiper that barely improved my visibility without realizing that I was putting everyone on the road in jeopardy. There is also the risk of hydroplaning whenever there is rain. I would encourage my younger self to be familiar with ways to avoid hydroplaning. Avoiding cruise control and avoiding hard braking in the event of a skid are ways to stay safe even in the event of a hydroplaning incident.
One final, though one of the most significant risky behaviors to participate behind the wheel is drunk driving. In the state of Illinois, drunk driving continues to account for 25% of all car crash fatalities in Illinois. The harsh reality that drunk driving kills thousands of people throughout the nation should be enough motivation to convince my younger self to not only avoid alcohol use myself, but to prevent intoxicated people from getting behind the wheel as well. Although it can be hard to confront someone when they are intoxicated and discourage them from driving, this action could potentially save their life or the lives of other people on the road.
When I was a young, naive driver, I did not realize that distracted driving would be the cause of my first fender bender. Looking away for a second to touch up some lipstick ultimately taught me that any sort of distraction, eating or drinking while driving, glancing at a text, switching between radio stations, put my life and others at risk. I also did not recognize the importance of being cautious in inclement weather, maintaining equipment to improve visibility, and being familiar with protocols in the event my car begins hydroplaning. Learning that 25% of vehicle fatalities in Illinois involve a drunk driver, I recognize the importance of staying sober on the road. I would also encourage my younger self to speak out when I witness other people choosing to drive drunk; I could potentially save their life or the lives of people on the road. In other words, I would tell my younger self to focus on the road, be prepared, and never allow myself or others to drive drunk; it is a matter of life and death.
Author: Alexandra Baczynski