The Rockwood Files: Hanging up on the habit

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Television can be a good thing sometimes. About a week ago, I saw a show that gave me the kick in the rear I’ve needed for a while. It was an Oprah show about one of Americans’ most dangerous habits – distracted driving – and it scared me, mostly because I knew it could happen to me.

You can go online and find the entire show on her website, and you should, particularly if you need the same kick in the rear I did. They’re powerful stories that’ll make you think. Here are some numbers discussed during the show: If you talk on the cell phone while driving, you’re about four times more likely to have an accident. (Drinking and driving also increases your risk by about four times.) When you send text messages while driving, (which is illegal in many states) you’re about eight times more likely to have an accident.

But the numbers aren’t what scared me. Numbers aren’t personal and we never think we’re going to be among the statistics. What bothered me was the raw pain on the faces of those who had lost children, husbands, fathers and mothers because the person who ran into them was on the phone.

Equally as powerful was the look on the young man’s face who caused an accident that killed two fathers on their way to work. He was texting while driving and he crossed the center line for just a split-second. His obvious anguish and guilt are just as permanent as those fathers’ deaths.

After the show was over, I promised myself I’d give up my beloved cell phone cold turkey when I’m behind the wheel. No excuses. No “This will just take a second” rationalizations. No more.

For the past week, I’ve been zipping my cell phone into my purse and putting it in the back seat where it’s not easily reachable so I won’t be as tempted to answer it when it rings, make a quick call or check e-mail at a stoplight. And you know what? It’s been HARD. I’ve been surprised at how strong the urge is to pick it up and dial, especially when I’m alone in the car. I felt like it was unproductive time, just driving the car and not getting a call done at the same time. I felt a little bored. I wasn’t used to the silence in the car.

But time away from the phone has given me time to think. If driving a car is one of the most dangerous things we do every day (and it is), maybe it’s not “unproductive” to focus all my attention on that task alone. After all, productivity takes a real nosedive if you’re in an accident and end up dead.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that being in the moment when I’m driving is kind of nice – even relaxing. I just drive, breathe and let myself “be.”

This wake-up call has also helped me realize how much I’m already teaching my kids about driving. Even though the oldest is still eight years away from getting a license, he notices everything. When he climbs behind the wheel one day, I don’t want him to fumble with his iPod, check e-mail on his phone, send a text message or make a phone call. I want him to concentrate as if his life depends on it – because it does. But I won’t ever be able to convince him of that fact if he has spent his childhood watching me commit the same driving sins I tell him to avoid. It’s hypocritical, and it would be setting him up for trouble.

So now when the kids ask me to change a DVD or hand them some gum or look at the paper they brought home from school, I say “Can’t do it right now. I’m driving.” I want them to learn, from watching, that when we drive, it’s the only thing we do. Nothing else is as important.

I know some people think they’re off the hook because they use “hands-free” devices. But experts have done studies that show the human brain just isn’t capable of processing lots of information at the same time, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. Being distracted, even though your hands are on the wheel, can cause something called “inattention blindness,” which means you won’t see everything that’s in your field of vision. Google it and find out for yourself.

One of the guests on the Oprah show summarized it best. (This woman had lost her mother in a car crash when a man ran a red light and crushed the driver’s side of her mom’s car. The man didn’t see the light change because he was engrossed in a phone conversation.) The grieving daughter said “It’s not where your hands are, it’s where your head is.”

May we all have our hands on the wheel and our head in the game. Be safe.

Note from Gwen: Hey, if you’re up for the challenge, please click the new comment button below and post a promise that you won’t use your phone while you’re driving — to keep you and your own kids safe as well as the kids who might be in the cars around you. Moms can make a big difference with this problem.



  1. Hi! I watched this episode on Oprah too and was very moved by it. Congratulations on going phone free! I hope more and more people take the pledge. You make such a great point on how we are teaching our children to behave in a vehicle. I haven’t moved my phone to the backseat yet but I do not text or email while driving. I will be sure to begin using the backseat rule since I have been answering the phone while driving.

    Thanks for posting this subject…it will certainly save a life!

  2. Thanks, Linda. I’m glad you saw that episode, too. I wish everyone could see it. It’s scary to know that there are so many distracted drivers on the roads.
    Thanks for reading!

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