Sense & Sensibility: Struggling with Distraction

I have a large appetite for distraction. Maybe that is the state of things today, but I have always been someone who juggles multiple tasks. That does not mean I do it well. As a child who loved to read, I would walk five blocks to grade school with my head in a book and my feet scouting for the curb. As a teen who took up knitting, I only liked to do it when watching TV. The gaps in the scarves I made told a yarn of their own.

I haven’t improved with age. Recently, I tried to talk on my cell phone while maneuvering a pizza pick-up. I ended up tripping on my pants and literally falling out the pizza shop door.

I consider this especially worrisome when I am behind the wheel of a car. Even without a phone in the picture, I can be easily distracted. Recently, I got a little too close to experiencing the ramifications of distracted driving. While driving in an unfamiliar city, chatting away with a friend in the passenger seat, I fully missed the red light in front of me. When my friend screamed, I slammed on the brakes as we moved full speed into the intersection. We just barely missed T-boning an SUV.

It was bad enough that I had to pull over and calm myself. I also spent weeks apologizing to the friend who might have become a casualty.

Only a single conversation prompted that near disaster, but the road becomes a truly scary place when you consider all the other distractions that can demand our attention at any given moment: radios, CD players, GPS devices, kids in the back seat, companions in the front, unrestrained pets, overfilled coffee cups, drippy sandwiches, wayward insects—and, of course, our ever-present cell phones.

Lots of attention, of course, has been given to cell phones and driving. But the results of a 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute suggests that even texting bans may not be an effective deterrent.

So what will it take? As one easily lured, I’ll take any help the automakers will give in terms of crash avoidance features like lane departure warnings. I also have to constantly challenge my heart and my head. Most recently, I ran across a YouTube video called “It Can Wait.” It details the stories of four young people killed or injured in texting-related accidents. It also shares the collateral damage—the guilt of the sister or friend on the other end of the text. The sight of those cell phones—of the actual last words, the last text before the accident—was profound.

I called my daughter to tell her about it. She was driving… perhaps another time.

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