The Collegian
Monday, April 15, 2024

Our mental capacity is not full

It's been almost a month since a driver killed a pedestrian 10 minutes from my house. Alcohol? No. An idiot 16-year-old who just got a license? No.

A vidiot one of us, doing something we do all the time: focusing on the wrong wheel. Taylor Swift, Tegan and Sara, Third Eye Blind -- oh, f*ck, a red light. A car. A person.

The 20-year-old driver killed a 19-year-old and sent her best friend into emergency surgery because she had been fiddling with her iPod.

While my heart killed for the two victims who'd been robbed of either their life or their best friend, it hurt just as hard for the driver who had to wake up the next morning and remember she hadn't broken her phone or lost her SpiderCard -- she had killed someone.

Not far behind my heart was my head, with a single thought boring a hole through my brain: That could have been me doing the damage -- I constantly play with my iPod, text, eat and fix my hair while driving.

I didn't drive for two days, I was so afraid I'd kill someone. My uncle's idea of "Congratulations" when I'd passed my driver's test -- "You do understand you're now in charge of a 2,000-pound weapon, right?" -- no longer seemed so absurd.

I quickly got over my driving diet, but did make a conscious effort to make sure my car was the only machine I was operating. Well, that lasted about two blocks.

And it's only gotten worse. As I was merging onto 64 the other day, I was trying to switch from windows to AC, but my car has been getting a little tired these days and the driver's side window usually needs a little help making it to the top. This means my left hand needs to be on the window-up button while my right hand physically pulls the glass up. Classy, I know.

But because I'm not the spider baby from India, this left a curious number of hands to man the wheel: zero. Doing 75 down 64 and I wasn't even holding the wheel.

"Whaaaaat am I doing?" I screamed to myself as I realized I'd hit a new low, how poor my driving habits had become.

Around the same time, my friend mentioned a graphic U.K. public service announcement about texting while driving that had become popular on YouTube and fodder for various U.S. news shows. The video depicts an accident caused by a texting teen driver who kills her two friends, a baby and the parents of a toddler, who keeps asking why her parents won't wake up.

Some say the video's graphic nature will scare people into keeping their phones or iPods away while they drive -- "I will show this to every kid I know," one CNBC commentator said -- while others say it's too violent to air on TV.

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Dramatizations usually make me cringe anyway, but the video is undoubtedly discouraging. As for the violence, it's more appropriate to use it to discourage destructive behavior than to entertain, which has become commonplace.

We're OK to pay to see blood on the big screen, yet when it comes to the real big screen -- life -- where the price is undeniably higher, we're not so sure. Well, there's not really a debate because whether we want to see it in commercials, accidents happen. Distracted driving causes 10,000 deaths per year, NBC estimated, so we might as well deal with it.

Yet I don't know how much it will help. The video may make us think twice, but I'm afraid our actions have grown beyond our control. During the latest vehicular battle of my left vs. right arm -- slapping my phone away with my left while my right was powerless not to pick it up again -- I realized poor driving habits weren't the problem, just one manifestation of it.

I located a strange feeling of driving not being enough anymore. What else could I be doing, accomplishing? The same had become true for walking. I had flashes of myself crossing campus, my phone out faster than I could step outside -- whom could I be contacting? Whom did I forget to text back?

I couldn't imagine the impulses that would possess me if I joined the Blackberry Brigade. My friend barely began to list the times of her alerts -- 8:46 a.m., 8:47 a.m., 8:47 a.m., 8:52 a.m. -- and my head was already spinning. I could see it now if I had one myself: Gmail and Facebook replacing my closest friends.

I figured I was being overdramatic until I read yesterday's New York Times tale of the unraveling of a marriage because the husband can't stop texting while driving. Pretty pathetic, but as I said, it's beyond our control.

The real problem is that we have become so over-programmed that even multitasking feels under-stimulating. You don't even know you're doing it until you're not.

My friend set up her baby pool on the IM fields Saturday, and because not even the iPhone has an underwater app yet, the six of us sitting in a circle were forced to look at each other while we spoke. The undistracted dialogue was strange but soothing, and I kicked myself for everything I'd missed when I played with my phone while there was a person right in front of me.

I didn't used to be this way -- with former texting fiends for a brother and best friend, I got daily practice in anti-texting pleads. Then somewhere along the line it became acceptable, and now, I constantly do it myself.

But it's rude, and when taken behind the wheel, potentially fatal. Luckily, while we try to regain some autonomy, Virginia is there to help, having made texting while driving illegal this summer. And most of my teachers have added grade-reduction cell phone policies to the syllabus this year.

But it's kind of embarrassing that we need bans to be practical or polite, so I'm inviting you to join me in a quest to reconquer self-control.

Leave your phone home for a day, put your iPod on shuffle while you drive -- we need some serious self-retraining before we're all complete vidiots.

Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at maura.bogue@richmond.edu

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