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See Inside March 2010

Scooting toward Oblivion

People with no actual circus experience still try amazing stunts on our roads


There’s a story about a truck driver who passed the long, lonely hours in his big rig knitting sweaters. His hands thus otherwise occupied, he steered with his knees. A highway patrol officer noted this behavior and set out after the truck driver. As the cop got close, he commanded via his vehicle’s loudspeaker, “Pull over.” To which the trucker shouted back, “No, it’s a cardigan.”

Though not a bona fide law-enforcement officer myself, I sometimes act in loco centurion while on the road. I do this by sharing safety tips with distracted motorists, such as “Slow down!” or “Pick a lane!” or, my go-to line, “Get off the phone!”

My most recent public safety effort happened in mid-December, in sunny Florida. I was driving south on the fabled A1A, just up the coast from Fort Lauderdale. In front of me was a young man on a motor scooter, doing about 35 miles per hour. Suddenly he slowed, causing me to do likewise. With his speed now erratically dancing around 20 mph, I swung left to pass. A cursory glance revealed that the scooter rider had slowed so he could concentrate on the task at hand: texting.

Scooter boy held his smartphone in both hands and banged out keystrokes with his thumbs, which against all odds were opposable. Wow, I thought, a new champion. My previous all-time winner was a woman in Boston a few years back who had no choice but to use her knees and elbows to more or less guide her vehicle’s trajectory along Storrow Drive, because her hands were busy holding the phone and writing notes recording key aspects of the conversation. I had an excellent view of her activities when she got close enough to the car in which I was a passenger for me to gently bang on her window.

But the guy on the scooter couldn’t even knee-steer. True, the gyroscopic effect of the scooter’s spinning wheels might keep him upright temporarily as he tooled along the roadway, hair flowing in the wind—did I mention that he wore no helmet?—perhaps tweeting to his followers about his derring-do.

As fate would have it, about half a mile later I had to stop for a red light and the scooter, with rider still somehow perched atop it, pulled up to my left. Feeling the necessity to share important public health information with him, I lowered my window and shouted a friendly, “Hey.” Seeing that I sought collegial banter, he said, “Huh?” I started to tell him the literally vital news I had, when he said, “Wait.” At which point he removed the earbuds that were conveying selections from his smartphone’s music library directly to the interior of his helmetless head and drowning out ambient sounds, such as engine noises, car horns and other useful clues to the environment.

“Listen,” I began, in vain hope of getting through to a brain that clearly held itself in low regard, “just please sign your organ donor card.” He looked at me quizzically. “If you sign your donor card,” I explained, “at least when they come to wipe you off the road, your organs might save some other people’s lives.” The light turned green, the dim bulb returned to his multitasking, and I thought of the desperate people waiting for a kidney, a liver, a heart and sundry other body parts whose prayers might soon be answered, all thanks to me. And, of course, to texting while scootering.

Numerous studies have shown that a sober driver becomes as erratic as an intoxicated one when merely holding and talking on a phone—the chances of an accident more than quadruple. Researchers have only recently embarked on studies of texting’s degradation of driving skills, presumably because it never occurred to them that people would be that amazingly daft. Early results indicate that texting is even worse than handheld phone talking. So remember, don’t phone and drive, don’t fool with the MP3 player and drive, don’t drink and text—seriously, your ex really doesn’t want to hear from you—and definitely don’t text and drive. But if for some unfathomable reason, you absolutely cannot resist the urge to compose short and banal messages instead of paying attention to the road, at least sign your organ donor card. Then upon receiving your remains, transplant surgeons can echo the trucker and say, “It’s a card again.”

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