You’ve seen the tell-tale signs on Veterans Parkway. The car that’s slow to leave a stop light, then drifts a bit into your lane, just ahead of you. Sure enough. As you gingerly pull alongside the vehicle, you see the driver is looking at a smartphone, maybe even texting on it.

Distracted driving has been an issue for as long as there have been motorized vehicles. Conversing with a passenger or rubbernecking the passing scenery have been troublesome elements from the start. When radios were introduced in cars, distraction increased. Fast food (think Big Mac in one hand) made it even worse.

But now technology surrounds us in the driver’s seat, and as helpful as it can be, it’s also very distracting. And killing us.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says traffic fatalities increased more last year than any time in the last half century, and they’re running still higher this year. Maybe there’s something else driving up these numbers after four decades of steady declines, but my money’s on the increasing number of elements competing for drivers’ attention.

I’m as guilty as anyone. I know my devotion to the road is sometimes diverted because I’m consulting a GPS or searching for a favorite tune. (No, I haven’t succumbed to "Pokemon Go.") And when the smartphone “pings,” it takes super-human self discipline to resist checking what was just delivered. In fact, there’s research suggesting the “ping” sends pleasure-inducing dopamine to our brains.

Of course, we could just turn off the phone when we start the car. But odds of that happening are about the same as the Fairview Park pool being open on Christmas Day.

Autonomous (self-driving) cars will one day dominate our roads and driver distraction will likely be much less of a peril. But until then, we need to do something to manage the problem. Laws in Illinois and 45 other states that prohibit texting while driving don’t seem to be enough.

Just last month, NHTSA called on electronics manufacturers to voluntarily develop a “drivers mode” that could restrict — but not totally eliminate —functionality of drivers’ phones while their vehicles are in motion. It sounds like a good idea to me, but early signals from tech firms are not so positive, calling it government overreach.

There are no easy answers, maybe not even any good answers. Yet it’s a serious problem, especially when it comes to young, inexperienced drivers who may be most tuned into their mobile devices.

We do have an entity in our community that has an extraordinary legacy of working toward improved auto and highway safety dating back nearly 80 years. I’m speaking, of course, of my former employer, State Farm, which can legitimately claim some credit for safer highway construction standards, seat belts, air bags and more — even for helping make the “designated driver” concept part of American culture.

State Farm is all over the distracted driving issue, too. But it looks like distractions are winning. Perhaps Rivian, the Mitsubishi plant’s prospective new owner that gets high marks for innovation, can be a problem-solver, too.

As a society, we need to sideline the negative effects of ubiquitous technology inside our cars and move ahead with the positives. That means allowing technology to solve the very problems it creates.

This and that

Farmer City’s Cropsmith is one of five finalist firms competing for a $1 million cash prize in Tulane University’s “Nitrogen Reduction Challenge” to reduce crop fertilizer runoff into rivers … Word that ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom, will open its first state-based operation in Illinois, saying there’s a “wealth of subjects for searching investigative journalism” should tighten the shirt collars of certain politicians … Doesn’t it seem like the Obama daughters Sasha and Malia are really ready for the White House years to be over?

Vogel, of rural Bloomington, can be reached at vogelgraph@yahoo.com.


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