Janet Walkow Christine Jacobs

Just Stop

Last month I was driving in Houston, TX. I was in town to visit my mother and other relatives. I grew up in Houston and can testify its roads are notorious for drivers who don’t always follow the rules – talking on cell phones, running red lights and turning right from a left lane. I’m always on alert for the unexpected when I’m on Houston roads. Driving on I-610 South, an 8 lane highway, on a Saturday afternoon, it seemed like an ordinary day until I spotted a bright blue RAV4 that had been in the far left lane. It was careening across the road towards the right lane guardrail, perpendicular to traffic, as though it had made a right turn. The blue car appeared to glide across the lanes, seemingly in slow motion. I immediately slowed down so I wouldn’t hit the moving target, then time sped up again as the RAV4 crashed into the barrier rails. I quickly pulled over to help the driver get to safety.

As smoke bellowed out of the crushed car, a petite woman, dressed in white, emerged from the car. She appeared dazed and while I appealed to her to come stand by the guard rail, out of the path of oncoming highway traffic, She stumbled from the car, towards the rail, then back to the car, acting irrationally, but I figured that she could be in shock from the accident. I tried to reassure her that help was on the way – 911 had been contacted. “No, no, don’t call the police” she pleaded, “…I’ve been drinking”. Now I was the one in shock. Drinking while driving at 2 in the afternoon? My sympathy instantly turned into disgust, as I realized that this drunk driver had miraculously not hurt anyone while chugging wine behind the wheel. Looking down, the front of her white shorts were stained a burgundy color, where wine had spilled upon impact.

Putting on the Brakes

The incident shook me for several hours and my mind kept going back and forth between stopping and starting dynamics. At the time of the accident, stop was the prevailing thought: Stop your weaving car; Stop your momentum before you crash; Stop to help. Stop drunk driving. But, this accident could have just as easily been caused by the driver checking her phone for directions, trying to find a favorite song on the playlist, grabbing another quick gulp of coffee, that ended up spilling into her lap. Drinking and driving should be a no brainer, but how often do we briefly interrupt our driving each time we get on the road?

I’m as guilty as most others – fiddling with my GPS, looking up and realizing that I had been on autopilot, not able to recall how I got to this intersection. Last year I made the conscious decision not to talk on the phone while driving, even hands free. I had heard too many horror stories and became convinced that the responsible thing to do was to stop. I attribute my focus and quick reaction to avoid a collision on that Saturday afternoon to the fact that I was able to slow down in time and not be hit by the out of control car.

The Stats

Distracted driving – talking, texting, eating, etc. – is a growing danger. In 2010, 3092 people were killed and over 400,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.

Just Start

We all get into cars and are easily distracted, whether it’s talking on the phone, looking at a map or adjusting the music. I continue to be amazed when I see someone texting while driving. Once, I was behind a driver who was literally reading a manuscript while driving. I pulled off the road – I didn’t want to be near that car.

Take responsibility for yourself and those around you. Challenge yourself to focus on driving and take note of how easy it is to become distracted. Driving has become the ultimate venue for multi-tasking. Shouldn’t we try to focus on just one thing at a time every once in a while, especially when the stakes are so high? Think about things in your life that you may want to stop; and, what you want to start.

Janet Walkow is the Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute at The University of Texas and a co-founder of Leading Women. Read her full bio.

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