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Spare Parts: The price of progress

By Ernie Copper

A little over a year ago, motorcyclist Dan Gallatin’s life was ended by a driver who had been texting when she ran him over from behind as he was turning into his daughter’s driveway. I wrote about that here. Recently the verdict in that case was handed down and Gallatin’s friends and family, many of them motorcyclists, anxiously awaited that verdict. Texting while driving is illegal in Pennsylvania, and was so at the time of the accident that took Dan’s life. The price for the unlawful behavior of texting while driving turns out to be less than the price of a ticket for a good seat at a major league sporting event: $50. Who knew?

It would be very easy at this point to launch into a rant about Dan Gallatin’s life being valued at $50 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but I won’t. Those who knew Gallatin far better than I speak of his service to the community, his country and his family, and know that his life was priceless. I suspect the Commonwealth knows that too.

It would also be easy to vilify the offending driver, a 44-year-old woman from Butler, Pennsylvania. But I won’t pass judgment on her as I have broken my share of laws and have paid speeding tickets that were three times higher than her texting-while-driving ticket. The driver also pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and may serve up to 23 1/2 months in jail, as well as one count of reckless driving, which carries a $200 fine. She will also perform community service at high school mock accidents and talk to teens about the consequences of texting while driving.

The path I’m taking on the loss of Dan Gallatin is that, at the very least, we need to use this tragedy to effect a change in how we look at the behavior of texting while driving. Fifty years ago the country laughed when fictional town drunk Otis Campbell tried to drive drunk on the measure of middle-American television, The Andy Griffith Show. Today the country’s view on drunk driving has changed and nobody’s laughing when an impaired driver gets behind the wheel. That is progress.

We need to adopt that attitude with texting and driving. Part of the trouble with texting and driving is that it seems so innocent. The subject matter is often as mundane as “picking up milk on the way home” or “be home in 15 minutes.” Things that really could go without saying. I don’t know what text the driver of the car that killed Dan Gallatin was sending or reading, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a life-or-death message for anyone except Dan.

We are at a crossroads where technology and common sense are colliding. It has happened before and will happen again. Each new innovation in mankind’s development has a price. When household electricity was first developed people died from electric shock, so we added ground wires and eventually ground fault interrupters. Electrical fires are still the #4 cause of household fires in the U.S. and nobody is leading the charge to ban electricity. Progress?

In 1982 we began to regulate walk-behind power mowers due to the high number of accidents resulting from their use. The resulting legislation introduced us to the handle-mounted, power-control bar. When released, it stops the blade within three seconds. You may know it better as that bar you zip tied to the handle so you don’t have to restart the mower every time you have to move the kids’ toys while mowing. Progress?

I’m not sure about all phones, but my iPhone gives me what I call “text previews.” These previews allow one to look at their phone and read the first few lines of a text message without technically opening the text. These are great when you aren’t driving, but the temptation for many to read these previews while driving without technically opening the text may be too great.

We are a nation of scofflaws, and always will be. Bikers are likely the scoffiest of scofflaws, but we also tend to exhibit the most common sense. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia already have some kind of laws on the books about drivers texting. Maybe we need tougher laws and stiffer penalties; maybe we just need to get our heads out of our collective asses.

My goal here is not to cry out for justice or retribution for the death of Dan Gallatin. There is none. I’m crying out for a change in attitude when it comes to modern communication and driving. So zip tie your power control bar and overload your household electrical system if you will, but please don’t let another Dan Gallatin die over a text message.

 

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