Cycling in the summer is good. One of the main side effects of hot weather is that drivers tend to have their windows open. This makes it very pleasing, because when they cut you up, and you shout at them, they will hear every syllable of your choice vocabulary. Only this morning I shouted through an open window at a driver. Not that he had cut me up. He was just pootling along next to me in his white van. Texting. “Stop texting when you are driving!” I yelled through his window. He looked at me as if I was mad. Genuinely surprised, affronted even.
Clearly he hadn’t heard about 22-year-old Jemma O’Sullivan, killed on the M18 in her boyfriend’s car when the lorry behind slammed into them at 55 miles an hour. Her injuries were so bad that her boyfriend was not allowed to see her in the morgue. The driver of the lorry had been composing a text message. Or maybe he didn’t know about Gary Livingstone, a 42-year-old prison officer, cycling to work on a chilly December morning. In his parents’ words, he was “mowed down” by Stephen Welsh, a lorry driver who had been sending and receiving texts for the previous 15 minutes.
Everyone knows that talking on mobiles while driving is a bad idea, but texting? It’s as if sending a text is regarded as less problematic. Of course having a conversation on a mobile phone is distracting; someone might say something that makes you laugh, or cry. But writing a few words, with predictive text to help you? It’s just like pushing a few buttons, isn’t it, and we all do that while driving anyway, don’t we?
Perhaps this is what went through the mind of the woman I saw yesterday driving up the road in my neighbourhood. She didn’t even have her hands on the wheel, let alone her eyes on the road. Head bent down to see the phone in her lap, she was utterly absorbed in sending a text as her car moved forward at about 20mph. There was a child in the back, no doubt strapped up with all the latest and most efficacious methods for child safety. Child safety, I thought, as I and my two youngest children waited to cross the road after her big impressive shiny Nissan had glided past. It’s not as crucial as sending your text, is it?
I fervently hope we all start (or continue, in my case) shouting, beeping our horns, ringing our bells, you name it, whenever we see somebody sending a text (and of course talking on the phone) while driving. And if someone does it while you are riding as a passenger, threaten to get out. Text-driving has to become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. I am old enough to remember when people used to merrily announce “one for the road”, standing at the bar of the pub. Nobody boasts about drinking over the limit any more.
Actually, the social disapproval shown to text-drivers should be greater than that shown to the drink-driver, because research has shown that the effect of mobile phone use on driver reaction time is significantly more deleterious than that of drink or even drug use. The Sunday Times, which carried out the research, showed these findings to road safety minister Robert Goodwill. Apparently he is now considering tougher penalties for offenders.
Yet the last time the Government actually had a public awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of driving while texting or talking on the phone was back in 2009. Incidentally, that was the last time that the Government researched how many of us use the phone while driving. Maybe dealing with the offence isn’t at the top of their To Do list because ministers are usually driven around by chauffeurs, and have never experienced the urge to tap out a text at the wheel.
As ever, technology is proving faster than legislation. There are now apps that can silence your mobile phone if you go faster than 10mph. There are others that will read your texts out to you, or send automatic responses letting people know you are at the wheel. But I think that much like hands-free, this is pandering to the problem, not addressing it. The habit needs to stop when we are driving. And it is a habit. How many times do we all check our phones during the day?
The automobile industry does much to mask the fundamentally aggressive, heavy, brutal nature of our cars, because consumers don’t like to be reminded of it. We want our giant speed monsters to be silent, glossy, air-conditioned gliding carpets of wonder. But can we also all just recognise the innate power and danger of driving, and just be big and responsible enough to switch off our phones, or at the very least ignore their siren calls, when we are at the wheel? Is answering or sending that text really so vital that people have to die for it?