Inattentive Driving is Inexcusable

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Vaughan safety driving law punishment

I THINK MOST OF YOU remember the incident a few years ago in which ex-South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow ran a stop sign and ended up killing motorcyclist Randy Scott. Janklow was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and received a sentence of 100 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. After serving 30 days, he was allowed out during the day to complete his community service. Scott, of course, was dead. The reason I bring this up is that in the past few months, similar situations have popped up all over the country, though not all with the same amount of notoriety.

I live in San Diego County, and my commute is relatively short but follows a very busy route. I'm absolutely appalled with some of the driving practices I see on a daily basis. I've seen drivers reading newspapers, shaving, putting on eye makeup, eating (I'm guilty of this), running red lights, using the right-turn lane as a passing lane (I've only started seeing this in the past couple of months), moving from the fast lane to the off-ramp in the course of a few hundred feet, weaving through traffic and, of course, chatting on cell phones.

Like many other states, California implemented a hands-free cell phone policy and a ban on texting while driving. Initially it seemed that drivers were taking them seriously, but now it appears to be the same as it was prior to the law. I'm not sure the hands-free portion of the law does much good anyway. Is using a headset better than using a hand-held phone when it comes to paying attention?

I think we can agree that any of these activities is enough to distract drivers from noticing motorcyclists.

Recently on one of the Internet forums I visit, one member reported that a car hit him from behind while he was sitting on his bike. His injuries forced him to spend a significant amount of time in the hospital, and the incident caused him to give up riding. His story spurred other forum members to share similar stories. A Ft. Bragg-based Green Beret and his wife, both 33, were killed when a driver exited a gas station, apparently without looking, and hit them broadside. A 56-year-old woman rider in Lake Zurich, Ill., was killed by another woman who was doing her nails while driving and didn't see the light change from yellow to red.

I'm sure if I did some serious research I could write an entire column about motorcyclists who've been hit by inattentive drivers. We know what happens to the riders — they die or spend time in a hospital with injuries that may or may not disable them for life. And then there are the wives, husbands, children, parents and friends, who are also affected.

What happens to the perpetrators? Not much. They're usually still alive to go about their business. They go home to their families and live their lives. Sometimes they get a bruise or a cut, pay some fines and do a little jail time, but generally, they emerge in pretty good shape. And the law? In the case of the Lake Zurich driver, authorities are considering whether criminal charges should be filed. If so, and if she's convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter, the charges only carry a sentence of three years.

Let's think about this a moment. She was driving a chunk of steel on a public highway populated with other drivers, and willfully decided that it was more important to do her nails than it was to pay attention to driving. To me, that's like cocking the gun. Her decision caused someone to die, and that's pulling the trigger. It doesn't seem to me to be manslaughter, which Merriam-Webster tells me is "the unlawful killing of a human being without express or implied malice." When the driver decided to do her nails, she made a decision that could in fact lead to the killing of a human being, which the last time I checked was "unlawful."

I am tired of hearing the lame excuse "I didn't see him." In Japan, I've been told, there is no defense of "I didn't see him." I believe the assumption is made that because the vehicle was there, you had to have seen it.

I think many of us in the two-wheeled world have had near misses and more than a few accidents due to the inattention of car drivers. The only way it can be reduced is through more stringent punishment, and I think that's a goal we should all work for.

I don't see these kinds of incidents lessening in the future. The more our cars are equipped with entertainment devices, the more incidents we're going to see. And I recognize that police can't possibly enforce a hands-free law with any hope of establishing a serious deterrent. What we need to do is work to change the laws to ensure that inattentive drivers who cause accidents or deaths get adequately punished. Maybe if these cell-phoning, texting or nail-painting drivers suffered serious jail time or hefty fines, they and others would be more responsible in sharing the road, obeying traffic laws and focusing on driving.

Mike Vaughan is the former publisher of Dealernews. You can reach him at mvaughan@mikevaughan.com or via editors@dealernews.com.