Distracted drivers sent a message

Tim Alexander

When Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn signed legislation into law recently that bans cell phone “texting” while driving beginning Jan. 1, 2010, the news left Peorian Kristina Hestrom jumping for joy.  

In the past six years, Hestrom has tutored thousands of Peoria’s high school children on the rules of the road. Hestrom, co-owner of Peoria’s Balda Driving School and a certified driving instructor who teaches many of the school’s classes, said it was “about time” the state stepped up to try and protect its children — and thousands of innocent drivers on the state’s roads — by establishing penalties for texting while driving.

“Texting and cell phone use are the two most dangerous types of distracted driving,” said Hestrom, “but texting is by far the most outstanding danger.”

As studies are completed on the dangers of distracted driving and their results released, the data seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt the folly of texting, or performing various other tasks that serve to take a driver’s mind off the road while operating a motor vehicle.

According to Carnegie Mellon, driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by a staggering 37 percent.

A recently completed study by Virginia Tech University in conjunction with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration revealed that the No. 1 source of driver inattention is the use of a wireless device. The University of Utah has found that distractions caused by cell phone usage extend a driver’s reaction time to that of a drunken driver’s.

In addition, drivers who use cell phones are four times as likely to get in crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to the NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Nationwide Insurance reports that 10 percent of drivers ages 16 to 24 are on their phone at any one time, and driving while distracted is a factor in 25 percent of police-reported crashes.

Every community has its own case to present for restricting cell phone use while driving — often in the form of a tragic, fatal automobile accident involving youth, she said.

“They’re inexperienced; they’ve never driven, and they don’t yet understand the dangers of driving,” Hestrom said of many of the young drivers she instructs. “Since they can talk on a cell phone and text easily, they assume they can drive and text easily. A big factor in that is that when they see their parents doing it, they have bad role models.”

While Hestrom agrees with studies showing texting while driving as the current “public enemy No. 1,” facing motorists, she is also concerned about other forms of distracted driving that youthful motorists engage in.

Conversing with others in the vehicle, eating, reading, smoking, adjusting a stereo, changing clothes, brushing teeth, applying makeup or using other hand-held devices can produce similar, tragic results, she said.

“The most basic reason any sort of distracted driving is dangerous is that your focus is not on the roadway,” Hestrom explained. “What makes cell phone use dangerous is that your mind is focused on the conversation, which engages a different part of your brain than the one you’re supposed to be using. What makes texting while driving so dangerous is that not only are you having a conversation, you’re structuring sentences and typing. You’ve totally lost control of what’s going on outside the windshield.”

Focusing on education

Hestrom said that in the six years she and her husband have owned Balda Driving School, the entire landscape of youth instruction has shifted dramatically. More emphasis on personal safety and the safety of other motorists are now included in classroom studies.

“When I first started teaching, most of the kids didn’t even own cell phones,” Hestrom recalled. “Now, just about every student has a cell phone. If parents are providing their kids with cell phones for personal safety reasons, they need to be used as such and not for social purposes.” 

Hestrom insists students shut off their cell phones or leave them outside the classrooms as an example of when cell phone use is appropriate.

In addition to presenting to students the latest research regarding distracted driving and showing “scared straight” type videos to her charges, she also attempts to personalize the dangers of inattentive driving.

“We talk about the teens they knew who have died because of distracted driving, the friends they may had lost. We also give examples of everyday activities and conversations in which they may have been distracted and missed what had happened, like when a friend talks to you during a movie and you realize you totally missed out on what was going on with the movie while you were talking.

“We try to make them realize that when you are walking down the hallway at school talking or texting on the phone and bump into someone, you get to walk away. When you’re driving, it’s life and death. Many of the teens who die while driving do so making their first mistake on the road, ever.” 

Hestrom is aware the problem is not restricted to Central Illinois or even to U.S. teens, but is a worldwide concern.

“Anywhere there is technology and cars” there has likely been an increase in auto collisions blamed on distracted driving, she said.

Bill time

When Quinn signed into law Ill. HB 71 and Ill. HB 72 during a ceremony at Northwestern University Aug. 5, he accomplished two things.

HB 71 prohibits reading, writing or sending an electronic message while driving. The measure applies to texting, e-mailing, instant messaging and surfing the Internet with a handheld device.

HB 72 bans cell phone use of any kind — including talking — while operating a vehicle in a school zone or highway construction zone, unless in case of emergency. Violations will result in a traffic citation and/or fine, and the ticket will appear on your permanent driving record. Multiple offenses carry more severe penalties.

Hestrom said the laws are a step in the right direction, but may not go far enough to protect motorists.

“Texting has to be outlawed, obviously, and I think that, eventually, cell phones are going to have to be outlawed (while driving). As long as people aren’t going to control themselves, they will have to be governed,” Hestrom said firmly. “Too many people are needlessly using cell phones while driving. People don’t want Illinois to be a ‘Nanny State,’ and I can see their point of view. However, when you agree to drive a car on the road where there are other lives at stake, you, as the driver, must be responsible for the lives of not only the people in your own car, but for those sharing the road with you.”

Illinois roads should be a little safer for both Hestrom’s students and for other drivers because of the new laws, she said.

For that, Hestrom said, she is thankful.