• Pay attention
    January 25,2014

    The driver of a Prius was headed down a straight stretch of two-lane highway recently, with a pickup truck approaching from the other direction. As she watched, the truck slowly veered into her lane. The driver of the truck seemed not to notice what was happening. When it appeared the truck would not return to its proper lane, the Prius driver was forced to turn sharply off the highway, passing over a ditch and through a fence. The pickup truck continued down the road, the driver unfazed.

    This incident fits the pattern of the texting driver. People think they are in charge, capable of multitasking, punching keys, glancing up at the road. In reality, they are wandering to the right and left, endangering themselves and others.

    It’s tempting. You think you can touch an icon, bring up a screen, glance at a message. It’s easy.

    But it’s not easy. It’s distracting. It’s more distracting than tuning your radio or inserting a CD. Texting demands additional actions, more icons to touch, messages to read. It lures your eyes away from where they ought to be.

    The latest health risk report released by the state Health Department says that nearly 60 percent of high school seniors in Vermont acknowledge texting or emailing while driving. It is a recipe for disaster.

    The health risk survey is administered every other year to students in grades six to 12 to determine levels of risky behavior, such as consumption of drugs and alcohol, and texting while driving. If the survey had been administered to adults, it might have shown where the teenagers had learned their bad habits. Texting while driving is against the law, but adults do it, too. They think they can get away with it, which they do, until they don’t.

    Teens are used to hectoring lectures from adults about risky behavior, and they are used to tuning out when they think the adults are worrying too much. The numbers on drugs and alcohol show the degree to which they are capable of tuning out warnings. The latest findings show that 33 percent of high school students drink alcohol, which represents a drop of 2 percentage points from two years ago. Again, it is no secret where they are learning about alcohol: The figures show that 65 percent of adults in Vermont drink alcohol, which exceeds the national rate of 53 percent.

    Teens, like adults, are smartening up about tobacco. The risk study showed that 13 percent of high school students smoke, which is down from 15 percent two years ago. That drop reflects an overall drop among adults, which has been underway for years. It is making less sense to kids, as with adults, to take up the habit of slowly poisoning oneself.

    It is interesting to note that marijuana is more widely used among high school students than tobacco is. Twenty-four percent of high school students say they use marijuana. It is worth knowing this number as the state and nation adjust to changing attitudes toward marijuana use. Even President Obama has chimed in on the topic, saying in a recent article that he thought marijuana was less harmful than alcohol.

    Among all these risks, texting while driving may seem to be the most innocuous, but it can lead to harm as grievous as the harm caused by drunken (or stoned) driving. When you text, you are in a daze, detached from the world around you. And when you drive, it takes just a second of detachment for life-altering events to occur.

    It is a good thing the state has outlawed texting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, it will probably require one or more catastrophic crashes before the lesson is driven home. Hectoring parents (or editorial writers) have a message to deliver, which they hope will make the harsh lessons of experience less horrible. Kids, pay attention.

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