His audience was a group of Cub Scouts. Their motto: Do your best.
And the children did their best to give Riverhead highway patrol officer Dennis Cavanaugh honest answers.
“How many mommies and daddies were on the cellphone as they were driving here today?” asked Officer Cavanaugh, who had volunteered to talk to the kids that day about law enforcement.
Most of the kids’ hands went up, he recalled. He imagined the parents were taken aback, perhaps a little embarrassed, but he wanted to make a point.
“Everybody does it,” he told the group, later relaying the story to me during a conversation we had about distracted driving and, more specifically, texting. “But we all gotta find another way to communicate with each other, because we’re killing people.”
I reluctantly admitted to Officer Cavanaugh that I myself have struggled to kick the habit of texting — or emailing — while driving. He wasn’t too hard on me. We all err, he assured me, while gently reminding me of the real dangers — the lives and families damaged not only by serious injury or death, but jail time.
I had hoped the birth of my daughter last year would have snapped some sense into me and get me to stop texting and driving. I was wrong. (Although I don’t text when she’s in the car.)
Of course, I’m not alone. In response to what a recent Riverhead police press release described as an “epidemic,” departments across the U.S. simultaneously launched a five-day enforcement and awareness campaign last week against distracted driving. The departments announced they’d be out in force to ticket distracted drivers.
The campaign went by a few different names, including “U Drive. U Text. U Pay,” but all the local and state PDs cited the same data: In 2012, distracted driving played a role in crashes that killed 3,328 people nationwide and injured another 421,000. That’s more people than were killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and more than twice the student population of the North Fork’s largest high school, in Riverhead.
The Riverhead Police Department’s press release reported that it would use “a combination of traditional and innovative strategies” to catch drivers texting or otherwise using electronic devices, but both Officer Cavanaugh and Southold police Captain Frank Kruszeski admitted it’s hard to catch people texting because, unlike talking with the phone at your ear, text messages are usually sent out of sight, with the phone under the dash.
“There’s no radar gun as there is for speeding,” Capt. Kruszeski said.
That’s the irony and the biggest challenge when it comes to combating texting: It’s much more dangerous than talking on the phone, yet much harder to enforce.
According to textinganddrivingsafety.com, drivers are 23 times more likely to crash while texting, compared with 2.8 times dialing, 1.4 times reaching for a device and 1.3 times talking or listening on the phone. Those numbers reinforce what local police told me, that the texting-while-driving phenomenon can’t be compared with the kind of driver distractions they encountered back in the 1980s, which were mostly limited to applying makeup, drinking coffee, changing a cassette tape or, a bit later, using a car phone.
But in the end, cops are there to enforce the law (and if you’re a young person, maybe scare you straight a bit with a stern talking-to). Their advice is usually simple, running along the lines of “Don’t do it — or else.” Officer Cavanaugh said he’ll sometimes default to the message of a popular ad campaign and teenage pledge movement: “It can wait.”
That’s the texting equivalent of Say No to Drugs. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes it makes more sense to avoid a certain group of acquaintances or a tempting situation than to actually say no.
So I’m calling on others to do what I’ve been doing the last few days: Toss the phone.
The idea is simple — and it’s been working. After getting into your vehicle — maybe even after placing one or two important calls and getting those conversations out of the way — toss that phone into the back seat, or wherever, as long as it’s out of reach. (The glove box is too close.)
Like many of you, I rarely get phone calls while driving, mainly because people don’t like to talk much anymore. If the phone does happen to ring and I suspect it’s an important call, I can just pull over or get off the highway to answer. If the phone’s on my lap or in the center console, however, I’m going to text, sometimes even absent-mindedly — so it’s important to make sure my phone is nowhere nearby.
If you need a reminder the next time you grab your phone to tap out a few words or silly acronyms, think of those little Cub Scouts, working so hard to do their best in hopes of living fulfilling lives.
We must do better by them, and all children, and their families, whose safety we put at risk every time we text.