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May 1, 2014

In Our Opinion: Culture must change around cellphone use

The Daily Star

---- — “The happy song makes me HAPPY.”

With those words, Courtney Ann Sanford became the poster child for distracted driving. 

Sanford, 32, posted that status to Facebook at about 8:30 a.m. April 24. Seconds later, she veered into an oncoming truck and was killed.  

It’s likely that if you had asked Sanford beforehand if her sentiment was a matter of life and death, she would have answered “No.” 

It’s likely that she simply felt the reflexive urge to share her thoughts via social media — an act so commonplace for many that it barely engenders a second thought. 

But Sanford paid for that urge with her life. And until we as a society can impress upon people that the risk of such actions far outweighs the potential benefit, there will be many more stories just as tragic as hers. 

Sanford isn’t alone. A SUNY Oneonta student told The Daily Star recently that he and all his friends text and drive “all the time” and don’t think it’s a big deal. Another student said that “everybody does it,” and wondered how police could ever hope to enforce the law that forbids the practice. 

The reality is, despite increased penalties for drivers caught using hand-held cellphones, people are still driving while texting. During a recent weeklong initiative titled “Operation Hang Up,” state police said they issued 59 cellphone-related tickets in Delaware and Otsego counties alone. One officer said he writes about two distracted driving tickets per shift. 

We applaud the harsh penalties in place now for this crime — and the even stricter ones on the way. But just as the culture around drunk driving had to change, the culture around using cellphones while driving must, as well. 

It is not enough to tell young people distracted driving is dangerous. According to a 2011 survey by Allstate, the majority of Americans consider themselves to be above-average drivers, while simultaneously admitting to violating not only the law, but also common sense — including using cellphones while driving. Clearly many people hold the dangerous belief that they are exceptional enough to flout the rules. 

We must, as we continue to do with drunk driving, start policing ourselves and the people we care about with regard to this dangerous behavior. The old slogan “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” must be joined by the idea that “friend don’t let friends text and drive.” Just as we would take away a friend’s keys if he were too intoxicated to drive, we can put a friend’s cellphone in the backseat while he is driving. 

Courtney Ann Sanford’s death was entirely preventable. But until we change the culture around cellphone use, all the laws in the world won’t be enough to prevent another such death.