This week’s Courier Herald column:
Sunday was Father’s Day, and I spent the morning giving my niece a driving lesson. She’s been doing quite well, and is almost ready for her driver’s test next month – even if her mother and grandmother are not.
She’s not terribly interested in politics at her age, but she is aware that new laws take effect in Georgia on July 1st. Specifically, she knows that as of then, holding a cell phone while driving will become illegal. The new law is designed to make it easier to enforce existing texting while driving and other distracted driving laws.
The measure also comes with teeth. In addition to fines, citations come with points added to the driver’s record. One point is added for a first offense, two are added for a second within 24 months, and three points for a third conviction in 24 months. Points are what affect insurance rates the most and too many can lead to license suspension.
Some have groused that this is just another attempt for the state and local law enforcement to raise revenue. In reality, the points if understood by drivers should be a larger deterrent than the fines, which are on the lower end of the scale for comparable moving violations.
In reality, lawmakers were alarmed that after watching average highway fatalities per miles driven fall for decades as cars were made safer, they began to creep upward as cell phone use expanded. More recently, the creep became a full-fledged upswing, with fatalities in Georgia rising by a third between 2014 and 2016.
States that have adopted measures similar to Georgia’s new law have seen declines in vehicular deaths fall almost as dramatically as Georgia’s have risen. Some states have seen a 20 percent decline in deaths after their measures went into effect.
Statistics are nice for columns. They’re not always as effective in lectures for teenagers. Especially when teenagers take their cues from adults, whether they want to admit it or not.
And so, the conversation could have become a bit awkward when, after my niece telling me about the new law, noted that she’s seen me and other adult family members texting and driving as regular practice.
I could have tried to excuse it or changed the subject, but this was a driving lesson. The reality is she’s right, and many of the rest of us are not.
I explained that when we learned how to drive – all the way back in the eighties – most people didn’t have cell phones. We got them later, and the first ones didn’t text. We slowly added these things into our habits while they continued to add functions and new distractions. Thus, we trained ourselves into thinking they were no big deal. And they aren’t, until one distraction makes them a very big deal.
I’ve been lucky so far, but admitted that I’m going to have to be different. Luckily, one of my cars has a pretty good interface that most legal functions can be done through steering wheel buttons and voice commands. I’ve already started keeping my phone in my pocket when driving my older car.
It’s hard to prepare to turn over a couple of tons of metal to a newly minted driver and urge them to always be careful, and not be willing to practice the same care expected from them. It’s important to set an example for those you’re trying to teach. Actions mean a lot more than words.
And so, anyone trying to get me while I’m enjoying a drive in my older convertible will have to wait a little longer to get a response from me. I’m going to be more proficient at all the buttons on the steering wheel of my newer car. That’s the takeaway from today’s driving lesson – One that was unexpectedly mine, and not my niece’s.