Save a Cyclist...Stop Distracted Driving

I can't stop thinking about Natasha Pettigrew. She was 30 years old, a Green Party candidate for Senator in Maryland, and killed this month in the early morning hours by being struck from behind by a woman in an SUV. The driver did not stop, dragged Pettigrew's bicycle all the way home attached to the car, and told police she thought she hit a dog or a deer. The reason I can't stop thinking about Pettigrew is I don't understand why she had to die by the side of the road.

Natasha Pettigrew photo

Pettigrew earlier this year - photo credit from her web site.

Some of the details of the fatal crash might help explain Pettgrew's death - the fact that the car was a Cadillac Escalade, that Pettigrew was out on a 5:30 a.m. triathalon training ride, that she was riding on a road (Route 202) with relatively high speeds, and that she received no immediate roadside emergency care while she lay dying.

But it doesn't explain it all for me. Something must have happened to trigger the accident - some distraction on either on driver Christy Littleford's part or Pettigrew's. Thus far the driver hasn't been charged and hasn't provided further details to the press, though the case is not considered closed. So perhaps we'll never know.

If distraction did play a role in Pettigrew's untimely death, it wouldn't be the first time. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System data, distracted driving is a cause in 16% of fatal crashes.

What must be done to reduce distracted driving crashes, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has said. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is a big proponent of laws against distracted driving, and specifically texting while driving.

This is a pretty sensitive point for people - we all know someone, probably including ourselves, that hasn't been able to resist sending a text message while driving. And it's also true that cyclists text while riding, too.

And a recent study doubts that banning texting or other driving distractions will make the safety gains the DOT is hoping for.

The most telling part of the study was not its results, reported in Slate and compiled by the Highway Loss Data Institute, but the statistics about the increase in texting.

"Texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too. It went up by about 60 percent in 1 year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009. "

We're texting addicted. While it seems our human tendency is to continually reach for tools that make us faster (and by extension, supposedly more efficient) we can't seem to grasp the enormity of the responsibility that driving a couple of tons of metal and glass entails. That's why no-texting laws would seem to be the only way to bring better safety to vulnerable road users. (And, not coincidentally, vulnerable younger drivers most addicted to texting and already most prone to accidents.)

Prior to Massachusetts, 11 other states have passed laws banning texting: Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

How well they can or do enforce the laws, is of course another question.

What do you think?

Read more about bike safety at TreeHugger:
In Bike Versus Car, the Bike Sometimes Wins
8 Ways to Create City Utopias for Peds and Cyclists
How to Get Killed on a Bicycle

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