Friday, June 13, 2014

DWI, DWT, DWD: Keeping Our Eyes On The Road

June 13, 2014, 8:00 a.m.

It's the Distraction, Stupid!

[Now [June 16] published as, Nicholas Johnson, "Is Texting the Problem, or Just Part of the Problem?," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 16, 2014, p. A5.]

The Press-Citizen thinks we ought to get tougher on DWT -- "Driving While Texting." Editorial, "Send Message to Lawmakers About Texting Ban," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 13, 2014, p. A9. Apparently, law enforcement in Iowa regarding this dangerous practice can only occur once a driver is stopped for something else. [Photo source: unknown.]

OK, it's hard to argue with the paper's position.

But might we benefit by thinking about this a little longer?

One of the toughest intellectual, linguistic and analytical struggles in addressing a good many challenges is figuring out what it is we are really trying to accomplish, conceptualizing the goal -- or as I used to put it to my colleagues on the school board: "How would we know if we were ever 'successful'?"

A lumber yard owner deciding whether she or he is in the "lumber business" or the "building materials business" can make the difference between profit and loss. Costco and Walmart have decidedly different ideas about how many thousands of items such stores should stock (as well as the impact on profits of paying employees a living wage!). What should be the goal, and measure, of a junior high social studies teacher: the test scores his or her students get, the test scores they get in high school social studies classes, the number who go to college and choose social studies-related majors once there -- or the number who apply what they were taught five and ten years after getting out of college, by registering to vote, actually voting in primaries, school board and city council elections, participating in political parties and campaigns, actually running for office, or becoming what Ralph Nader has called "a public citizen"?

When I was a boy, the speed limit in Iowa was, simply, "reasonable and proper." It might be a little ambiguous, but isn't that really our goal? Is it "reasonable and proper" to drive 55 mph in a 55 mph zone when the early morning fog still hangs over a very icy road? Of course not.

Similarly, is it really texting that is the problem? Isn't texting just a part of the problem -- one that no one could have anticipated 20 years ago? If we'd like to be a little more precise than "reasonable and proper," but less specific than "texting," and we'd like a word that eliminates the need to constantly revise the law as new technology comes along, how about "DWD" -- "driving while distracted"?

Isn't that the problem? Whatever your confidence about your "multi-tasking" abilities, it is impossible to compose (or read) text on a handheld device and keep your eyes on the road at the same time. But your driving suffers the same impairment regardless of the cause of the distraction: driving while shaving or putting on makeup, reading the paper, changing stations on the radio, turning around to watch kids in the back seat, looking on the floor of the car for the quarter or toll road ticket you dropped, figuring out your location on your GPS device, even concentrating on a serious hands-free phone conversation -- or an intense conversation with a passenger in the car.

Shouldn't this be our legislative, and editorial, focus -- DWD, "driving while distracted," what many claim is as hazardous as DWI.

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