It's not often that I get to sit in the passenger seat of a car, free to take in the passing scenery, study the cloud patterns and scan the wind and wires for interesting birds.
I'm usually the driver. But I had the opportunity to ride along this week when a couple of friends and I made a quick getaway to the Sierra Nevada to make some turns in fresh powder snow.
And what I saw from the back seat as we scooted along Interstate 80 at 70 mph scared the heck out of me.
Texting, phoning, eating, drinking, reading, rubber-necking. You name it, and you'll see a driver doing it.
Unless it's simply driving. Hardly anyone just drives any more. There are way too many other interesting things to do in the car.
It's become epidemic — to the point where lawmakers have made it illegal to text or talk on a cell phone while driving, unless the driver is using a "hands-free" device, to the point where the law enforcement agencies across the nation have declared April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The California Highway Patrol and a number of local police departments will conduct "special enforcement" efforts aimed at finding and ticketing distracted drivers.
That's like shooting fish in a barrel.
You don't need to be on the freeway to find them. Stand on any busy street corner in Santa Rosa and count the number of drivers passing by with a cell phone in one hand and the wheel of a two-ton deadly weapon in the other. You'll run out of fingers before the light changes.
On the freeway, though, distractions assume a different character. On one hand, you're driving in a straight line at about the same speed as everyone else around you. It gets boring. Change the CD (or the DVD that the kids are watching from the back). Check your email. Text your wife. Grab a soda from the cooler behind the passenger seat. Make a call.
On the other hand, you're flying along at more than a mile a minute. Look away for two seconds to find a phone number and you've traveled more than 50 yards — or about 10 times more space than many drivers leave between their front bumper and the back one on the car ahead of them. Look away for four seconds and you've traveled more than the length of a football field.
A lot can happen in 100 yards. But you just missed it.
It doesn't have to be a wireless device; on I-80 I saw more than one driver with a dog on his or her lap. I saw drivers consuming big, sloppy meals. I saw cigarettes and coffee cups and, in one case, a pipe being passed from front to back.
And it doesn't have to be at high speed. As a former Highway 101 commuter, I can attest that slow traffic brings out the multi-tasker in drivers. Makeup. Newspapers. Electric razors. I'll admit that I've even had conversations with friends in other cars as we've found ourselves side-by-side, crawling along 101 on an otherwise pleasant morning.
It's almost amusing, until you think about the consequences. You've read about those consequences on these pages — children killed in crosswalks, cars upside down off the side of the road, lives altered or ended for the sake of checking a text or taking a call.