(Less than 24 hours later, another Pokémon Go-playing driver dinged another patrol car, this time in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Police said his wife directed her husband to whip into a parking spot because “there was a Pokémon Gym in that direction.” At least the guy wasn’t holding the phone.)
Again, nobody was hurt.
Again, all quiet over at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It’s been a month since we asked to talk to someone there about what more the federal government might do to address the problem.
Federal transportation officials must be too busy bagging their own cartoon characters to see that texting and driving has become our new national pastime. Any day now, perhaps, they’re going to get serious about a problem that kills or injures half a million people a year. Maybe they’ll mount another public service campaign. Maybe they’ll work up a new slogan. Here’s one, given the wild popularity of Pokemon Go: “U Drive. U Text. U Play.”
The problem of distracted driving was already out of control before Pokémon Go became popular. That came home to me about a month ago when I was driving a motorcycle on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. I was heading north, just north of Bradley Lane near East-West Highway, when a minivan veered into my lane. I honked the horn and swerved out of the way. Then I peered inside the minivan. And there, behind the wheel, was a young woman texting with a smartphone in her lap. I was miffed, so I wagged my index finger at her.
“Just drive,” she said, mouthing the words to me — as if her nearly sideswiping me had been my problem. And then I realized it was not just anyone but a friend and a colleague. I also realized that she hadn’t recognized me in a helmet and goggles. So she was surprised when I recounted the event the next time I saw her. She apologized, and she said she felt terrible. We ended up laughing about it because we weren’t going that fast at the time and, hey, I had to admit that I’ve succumbed to temptation and texted at the wheel, too. A survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has found that almost 90 percent of drivers think texting or emailing while driving is dangerous, and yet 42 percent admitted to reading a text or email while driving in the previous month. What do you bet that number is an undercount?
To me, the minor episode on Connecticut Avenue demonstrated that no one’s immune to the temptation to text while driving. That’s why I think the federal government, the smartphone industry and car makers should make it harder to do, perhaps by using technology that can jam a driver’s smartphone. After all, we’re talking about at least doubling the risk of a crash to communicate what are — let’s be honest here — usually nothing more than trivialities. Or Pokémon Go.