Jabbing at the wheel

IT was inky black an hour before dawn last Sunday week as I drove from Williamtown to Newcastle after dropping off a daughter for an early flight north, and I was nervous. The problem was visibility, because vehicles heading in the opposite direction prevented the use of high beam. So with just low beam I could see only far enough to be sure of stopping from 60 km/h or so in the event that a wheelbarrow hove into that limited view, as it did once with a former workmate. Or a cow.

The bigger problem, though, was the dazzling of the approaching vehicles in the blackness, progressively reducing the vision provided by the low beam until there was no vision at all for a few seconds as we passed. And so I was driving below the 100km/h limit, a rare event for me, but not far below it, at about 90km/h, and not far enough below it, I’ll admit, to feel comfortable. Still, driving at 60km/h was possibly more dangerous to me and others than the 90km/h.

Before I reached the overtaking lane about halfway between Williamtown and Fern Bay a driver who seemed to have better vision pulled in behind and made a couple of moves to the right to check for approaching vehicles, and he went past in the overtaking lane as soon as we reached those double lanes. And as he went past I glanced to the right, as you do, and since I was driving my wife’s LandCruiser I looked both to the right and down. And there, to my amazement, was a young fellow lit up by the blue light of his smart phone, his left hand holding the phone and his right hand with the jabbing index finger so familiar to us now. I assume he was texting, but he may have been recording the trivia of his life on Facebook, tweeting, checking emails or surfing the net.

But how was he steering as he went past in his small car at something over 100km/h into blackness broken only by dazzling lights? I’ll admit to having used my knees against the bottom of the steering wheel to hold a course ever so briefly on the odd occasion, and I guessed that this young fellow was doing the same. But there was something about the position of his phone-holding hand that suggests he was using the back of the hand to exert pressure on the bottom of the steering wheel.

I was pleased he was going away from me rather than approaching me, and soon enough his red tail lights were out of sight.

On Monday as I drove through very heavy rain to Sydney to pick up my wife from Sydney Airport I saw an even more startling example of this recklessness. This time it was a young woman driving a small blue car, her hands in much the same position as those of the young fellow a week earlier as she jabbed at her phone, overtaking me at more than 100km/h, and apart from the heavy rain it was unbelievably dangerous because of pooling water. Those pools were catching the front wheels of even my wife’s LandCruiser and some could have sent her car slewing off the road.

The number of people – all of those I saw were young women – driving small cars oblivious to the danger of the pools of water stretching out from the gutters on either side of the two lanes or of the sheets of water draining from one side of the road to the other was itself shocking. I was on full alert in a vehicle with all-wheel drive and a weight that plants it firmly on the bitumen, and here they were in light front-wheel-drive buzz boxes that would lose steering the moment they hit a pool. It was probably only momentum and luck that had seen them cross these pools and sheets in a straight line, but the greatest danger was in just one front wheel hitting pooled water.

On the return trip five hours later it was still raining and I overtook an older woman driver engaged in an older distraction – her left hand clutched both the top of the steering wheel and a big bag of Twisties, evidently an almost empty bag, while she peered into it with her right hand poised to pounce.

NSW Police record that a phone distracted a driver in 1 per cent of fatal crashes, a figure that relies on an admission and which thus understates the reality. I don’t think the problem is going to fade.

Have you noticed a new recklessness among young drivers? What can be done about texting while driving?

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