September 26, 2012

Sometimes We Need to Save People from Themselves

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I was recently asked to represent the Aurora Police Department at an event sponsored by AT&T. The corporation has launched a campaign against texting and driving and they invited me and several local legislators to help them send the message.

On my way there, I was formulating my thoughts about what I was going to say if asked to speak. The appropriate message to send as a police officer is that texting while driving is illegal and there are consequences to breaking the law. As true as that is, the threat of a ticket or an imposed fine is not always enough to change behaviors.

This started my thought process on changing human behavior and I realized that there are several methods that might appeal differently to different people on this topic.

I thought I might tout some statistics about the dangers of texting and driving. After all, it might be interesting to note that in 2009, 5,474 people were killed in U.S. roadways and an estimated additional 448,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes that were reported to have involved distracted driving. (2009, FARS and GES). It also might be important to know that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (2005, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). While this is all factual information, I have found that statistics and data don’t resonate with people enough to alter behavior. After all, we don’t believe we will ever be one of those statistics because bad things happen to other people!

Then I decided I would apply simple logic in the hopes that it would convince the left-brain drivers that texting is dangerous. Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s handheld or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (2009, University of Utah). Let’s assume that you are operating a piece of machinery that is roughly 4,500 lbs. (the average weight of a car) and traveling at 55 mph. You either read or answer a text message which diverts your attention from the road for approximately 5 seconds causing you to veer over the center line where you collide with another piece of machinery in motion. I’m no astrophysicist but I can tell you that I understand intellectually the propensity for bad things to occur when those two moving objects meet. Even with this understanding, many of will still disregard the danger of texting and driving.

And so I decided to appeal to the emotional side of people. After all, we don’t change our behaviors or our thoughts and ideas until we are personally influenced – that is, until something affects us directly. My hope it to alter your behavior before you are affected personally by a tragic loss thereby sparing you the pain you would feel by losing a loved one for something so senseless as texting while driving. When I was a patrol officer, I responded to a call for a one car roll-over accident. The driver was ejected from her car and so were the 20 Portillo’s sandwiches that she was bringing home for her son’s birthday celebration. Her phone was found nearby with a text message that she was in the middle of writing that said, “I’m on my way hom—“. She never got to send that message because she ran off the road. In fact, she never made it to her son’s birthday party and she won’t be there for any others because she died instantly.

The thought of living without someone you love or them enduring life without you should be enough to get you to alter your behavior. Alas, it isn’t.

And that is why the government must intervene and create laws prohibiting such actions and police officers must enforce those laws.

Sometimes we have to save people from themselves.

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