Fatal distraction

May. 03, 2014 @ 09:08 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

The photo of Courtney Sanford's smiling face was transmitted all around the world. Her death was too tragically ironic for news organizations to resist.

The 32-year-old Clemmons woman was killed just moments after posting "selfie" photos and a "happy" message on Facebook -- while driving.

Her vehicle crossed the median on Interstate 85 Business in High Point and ran into a heavy truck. She likely died instantly; the truck driver wasn't injured.

It takes only a few moments' distraction to steer a car off course, especially at a speed of around 55 mph. State law recognizes the danger. It's illegal, while driving, to use electronic technology that provides access to digital media, including a camera, email, music, the Internet, text-messaging or games, the law says.

Taking photos and posting to Facebook violates several of those provisions.

The law allows a $100 fine.

Sanford paid a much higher penalty for her mistake. And that's the point of reporting her sad story. What may seem like a harmless, momentary diversion in fact can bring about terrible consequences.

The law makes an important statement, but it doesn't begin to address the problem. Law-enforcement agencies rarely can police this kind of driver behavior except after an accident occurs -- which, of course, is too late to do any good.

The law doesn't address other kinds of distractions, either -- fiddling with a radio or music player; juggling food and drink; reading a map, book or newspaper (we've all seen it); arguing with a passenger (such as a teenage son or daughter); grooming. The list is almost endless.

More than 3,000 people die each year in the United States as a result of distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sending text messages is considered the most dangerous distracting behavior because it shifts the driver's attention so sharply from operating the vehicle. Drivers younger than 25 are more than twice as likely as older drivers to send texts or emails while driving. A survey by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute reported that one-fourth of teenagers said they respond to one or more text messages every time they drive. Every time!

As a mature driver, Sanford should have known better, but almost everyone lets his or her concentration lapse behind the wheel sometimes. That loss of focus can cause a loss of life.

North Carolina's law could be stronger. When texting is known to increase the risk of an accident, why shouldn't a violation incur an insurance penalty? Why shouldn't it be evidence of contributory negligence in the event of an accident?

Courtney Sanford's death offers a hard lesson about the danger of distracted driving. Some people may be frightened into changing their behavior. Others might shrug and think they can pull it off.

The state also could make a stronger statement than threatening a $100 fine.