Legally Speaking: Driven to distraction
Bob Mionske explains how distracted driving may be one of the greatest dangers cyclists face on the roads today.
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As the peloton rolled out of Limoges in the fifth stage of this year’s Tour, the teams and riders were focused on the challenge they faced. And they had to be — as physically prepared as the pros are, they can’t take on the Tour without mental clarity, focus, and discipline.
Even when training, pros are attentive, because they know all too well that anything can happen at any time, as was the case with VeloNews contributor Chad Haga and several of his Giant – Alpecin teammates this past winter in Spain when a driver crashed straight into their training group.
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But your average American motorist, safely ensconced in their air-conditioned, rolling steel and plastic cage … Not much physical demand required there. And mental clarity, focus, and discipline? Unlikely, with many drivers finding ever-more creative ways to distract themselves from the exhausting physical and mental demands of sitting on a comfy seat and paying attention to their surroundings.
Now, more than ever, cyclists have to ride defensively and be aware.
In fact, on that same day as the Limoges stage, a virtual reality game rolled out of San Francisco, and became an instant sensation, as millions of “Pokemon Go” players fanned out, searching for Pokemon characters to capture on their mobile devices. Although the game was created with the intent to get virtual reality gamers moving in the real world (i.e., to get some exercise) in the ultimate irony, people came up with the bright idea to use their cars to look for Pokemon creatures.
The results were predictable: A tree “came out of nowhere” and crashed into a Pokemon-playing driver, a drunk driver went for a twofer and crashed while playing, and in two separate and particularly satisfying moments of instant karma, Pokemon players crashed into police cars in Baltimore and Quebec.
We can shake our heads and laugh at human folly, but driver distraction isn’t a laughing matter, and certainly not for cyclists. Days before the Tour began this year, a Wisconsin mother, who had been driving while Facebook messaging, went on trial for a crash that took the lives of her 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old nieces.
How safe are cyclists when distracted drivers fail to see other road users, and what can you do? Even if you are riding in a group, lit up like a Christmas tree, with bright kit, a mirror, and a rear-looking camera with monitor and warning system, you are vulnerable to people who can’t be bothered to keep a safe lookout through their windshield.
Distracted driving has become so routine that it’s easy to find examples of tragedy at any given time on any given day, at any place one looks. The fact is, distracted driving has become so commonplace that it’s been labeled “epidemic” on the federal government website “distracted.gov.” The site reports:
• In 2013, 3,154 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.
• Approximately 424,000 people were injured in distracted driving crashes that same year.
• In 2013, 480 non-occupants such as pedestrians and bicyclists were killed in distraction-affected crashes.
• A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. Twenty percent of teens and 10 percent parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.
• Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded.
Distracted driving is not a problem that’s going to go away by itself. The temptation is too great, the perceived risks seem too small. Drivers routinely overestimate their own driving skill. And what might be a routine fender-bender when the distracted driver hits another driver could become a fatal collision when the distracted driver crashes into a cyclist. This real disparity between the potential victims of a distracted driver is not taken seriously, and it should be.
Our laws are simply not up to the task of keeping up with what drivers are doing. And even when distracted driving laws are passed, people routinely ignore them. No, the solution has to be multi-pronged so that it includes increased enforcement by police, better driving education and messaging to the public about the hazards of distracted driving as well as one key ingredient: a sea change in the attitudes of motorists that understands that distracted driving is impaired driving.
The problem is that people don’t think of distracted driving the same in the same way they think of driving under the influence. Thanks to the initial efforts of MADD, attitudes have changed. Everybody knows that DUI is a serious offense, and they take it seriously.
Until societal attitudes about distracted driving catch up with the real consequences, drivers won’t change. They’ll continue to text, watch video, post on social media, or play video games, ignoring weak laws against distracted driving. So the challenge we face is: How do we change our societal attitudes about distracted driving, and what are you doing to help? You could save a life, maybe even your own.
Now read the fine print:
Bob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic Games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske’s practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc.).
Mionske is also the author of “Bicycling and the Law,” designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem. If you have a cycling-related legal question please send it to Bob, and he will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
The information provided in the “Legally Speaking” column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public website is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this website. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the website without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.