Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

November 3, 2013

A host of driving distractions can prove dangerous on the roadways

— — The driver ahead of me is obviously in a hurry. She pulls onto Route 52 in front of oncoming cars and without a care to the flow of traffic. I slam on my brakes to avoid an accident, as do the other travelers behind me.

A mile down the road I realize the driver is not madly racing home or to an important appointment. Instead, there is a distraction in the driver’s seat.

It’s easy to spot motorists who are texting behind the wheel. They drive safely for miles then suddenly slow down (reading a text), then begin to veer left of center and onto the shoulder (answering the text). Once they hit the “send” button, the driving improves — until, of course, they receive an answer.

And then they are all over the road — again.

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Nearly a decade ago, a bill in the West Virginia Legislature took aim at travelers driving too slow in the passing lane. The measure originated in the Senate Transportation Committee, chaired by then-Mercer County Democrat Anita Skeens Caldwell.

As one of the Telegraph’s reporters who helped cover statehouse at the time, I recall that Caldwell’s frequent drive from Princeton to Charleston on the turnpike during the Legislative session — and constant encounters with slow-moving traffic in the left lane — spurred discussion and empathy from other committee members.

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Heaven knows (as do the police officers who have pulled me over), I have a tendency to drive a little too fast. For drivers who share this characteristic, the turnpike presents the best of both worlds. A highway with miles and miles of a 70-mph posted speed limit and a slew of motorists from other states — including places where  “70” apparently translates to “51.”

Although I feel compelled to write, “it’s not a bad thing to drive 20 miles under the speed limit,” I simply can’t — because sometimes it is.

A motorist attempting to pass a tractor trailer while driving in the 50 to 55 mph range up a steep grade can slow down 15 to 20 other drivers in the blink of an eye.

Travelers behind the slow-moving vehicles have no option but to slam on the brakes, take a deep breath and ponder the insanity of one person having the power to stall a half-mile of interstate traffic.

Perhaps the most unfortunate side effect of an interstate creeper occurs after he or she has merged back over into the slower-moving right lane. Once the passing lane is clear, human nature tends to kick in among the other motorists, many of whom feel suddenly compelled to travel faster than they were before encountering the slow-moving vehicle.

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On the other side of the coin are those who drive way too fast on the turnpike, especially during inclement weather. Years ago on my way to Charleston to cover a story, I encountered a particularly nasty winter storm on Flat Top Mountain. Snow was blowing, the road was icy and visibility was close to nil when I was passed by a motorist with North Carolina plates traveling close to 70 mph.

Now there was a moment to ponder insanity — and to say, truthfully, “it’s not a bad thing to drive 20 mph under the speed limit.”

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One of the most basic keys to safety and highway etiquette on the West Virginia Turnpike is common sense.

If you prefer to drive slow, stay in the right lane. If you tend to drive fast, don’t travel during snowstorms.

And on those beautiful balmy days when the glare from the shining sun makes the “70” on the signs read “83,” be polite to the trooper who pulls you over and gives you a ticket.

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I watch the car in front of me nearly go into the ditch, overcorrect, and then swerve blindly across the yellow line into the other lane.

Thankfully, on this dark and dismal evening, there is no oncoming traffic and the driver is spared from a head-on collision. I wonder about the subject of his or her text message — what is so important that it is worth risking life and limb?

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I admit I may, at times, go a few miles over the posted speed limit, but I do my best not to text and drive (unless I am stopped at a red light. That doesn’t count, right?). However, we all know there are a host of other driving distractions.

Back in the day, just about every teen and young adult had at least one “almost accident” while trying to change a tape or CD, and rumor has it some women even apply makeup while steering with their knee (that would be so wrong). But I am convinced one of the worst distractions is eating while driving. Trying to gulp down a chicken-salad wrap while traveling Route 52 should be grounds for reckless driving charges.

While laws are in place to discourage such dangerous behavior, most of us would do well to police ourselves and focus our attention on the road — and the posted speed limits — instead of attempting to multi-task in a vehicle like we do at work and home.

That means driving carefully and cautiously, and obeying the rules — no speeding, no eating, no texting.

Tweeting doesn’t count, right?

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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