I was out shopping on Saturday and found myself following a dark blue minivan down the main street of a nearby town here in northern Virginia. We had just left the town limits when a small boy about four years old climbed out the left rear window of the car and sat on the door frame with his entire upper body outside the car. He was grinning and waving from the vehicle, which was going along at about 40 miles per hour and weaving slightly, suggesting the driver might have been on a cell phone. The little boy sat there for about two minutes before disappearing back inside.
It was possibly the most terrifying experience that I have had in nearly fifty years of driving. I was afraid that if I honked my horn the driver would hit the brake and the boy would fly out, so I just dropped way back so that if he fell out I could avoid hitting him. I followed the driver, who appeared to be a woman in her thirties, passing her as she turned into a housing development. There were several children in the car. She was on her cell phone. I was badly shaken by the incident and now regret that I did not take down the license plate number and report her to the police. It was clear that the little boy was not strapped into a car seat and, while I am all for rights and liberties, I have come around to the viewpoint that cell phones in automobiles are a threat to all of us. I have a hands-free system in my own car and I try not to use the phone at all when driving. But I have noticed that when in the vehicle and receiving a call one tends to tune out and focus on the phone, not on the driving. I am sure readers of this website and magazine have experienced numerous near misses or even worse with other drivers who were seen to be on the phone.
Contrary to that thinking, however, an interesting study by MIT of Boston motorists (admittedly among the world’s most aggressive anyway) suggests that drivers who are risk-takers and careless in general tend to use their cell phones a lot while on the road, perhaps indicating that is not the phone that is the problem but rather the reckless proclivities of those who tend to use it frequently.
In light of that study, whether banning cell phones would have made any difference in the incident I have recounted I do not know, but I do know that I almost saw a little boy die.