When Doug Rooks, this paper’s former editorial page editor, invited me to write this column 26 years ago, he said he didn’t care what I wrote about as long as I stirred up people. Turns out I have a natural talent for that.
My Feb. 18 column, “Cellphones may be the least of many things that distract drivers,” about legislation to ban cellphone use while driving certainly stirred up people. One fellow emailed a very critical message, reminding me there is nothing funny about distracted driving, especially for those who have lost a loved one in an accident with a distracted driver.
He is right, and I apologize to those who have experienced that. The point I tried to make is that many things distract us when we’re driving. Eating and drinking are right at the top of the list. If the police really wanted to crack down on those who drive distracted while consuming breakfast, lunch or dinner, all they’d have to do is stand next to the drive-up window at any fast food restaurant and toss a summons into the bag.
Talking on the phone is far less of a distraction than all the things I mentioned in the column. And I missed a few. A friend told me he’s seen lots of people driving with dogs on their laps. Yikes! Is there anything more unpredictable than the behavior of a dog? And has anyone ever gotten a summons for driving with a dog on his lap? I doubt it.
Yes, it’s a dangerous world out there, no more so than on our roads and highways. Linda and I drove to Millinocket recently in a snowstorm, taking twice the normal time to get there because of the terrible traveling conditions. Appropriately, the speed limit on Interstate 95 was lowered to 45 mph, and we stuck to that. But no one else did.
I lost track of the number of vehicles that passed us. Between Old Town and Medway, eight huge trucks passed us, including three empty logging trucks. All were speeding, some, I suspect, were traveling more than 70 mph. And when they passed us, the blowing snow was blinding. Since I couldn’t see anything and had to slow way down, I could only hope that vehicles behind us also were slowing down. Twice, I had to come to a complete stop, not knowing where — or whether — I was still on the road.
And only one driver entering the highway yielded to us as required. At one entrance, a delivery truck wedged itself into the narrow space between us and the car ahead, nearly causing a major pileup; and as soon as he got into our traveling lane, he pulled out into the unplowed lane and started to pass other vehicles. He got off the interstate just one exit down the road, gaining only seconds while endangering all of us. Less than a week later, in that same stretch, there was a 75-vehicle pileup.
Let’s put this in perspective. As we debate the danger of driving while talking on the phone, millions of train cars are moving through our neighborhoods, many carrying explosive fuels. A few days after 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, by a train derailment, I read in this newspaper a sobering report from reporters Steve Mistler and Tom Bell that the same railway train had been scheduled to travel through Maine the next day en route to New Brunswick.
The report prompted me to wonder about the trains that pass within five miles of my Mount Vernon home. So I went online to check out the maps. Sure enough, Pam Am Railways transports oil from Albany, N.Y., through Maine to New Brunswick, passing through Winthrop and Readfield, skirting the east side of Mount Vernon, and traveling on through Oakland and Waterville. I have sat in my vehicle in Readfield Depot, within feet of that train as it passed through. Yikes!
A few weeks ago, a train carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude oil derailed in a snowstorm in West Virginia. Nineteen cars burst into flames, shooting fireballs into the air. And while we’ve been told that safer rail cars are coming over the next few years, the West Virginia cars were new safer cars.
According to a recent Associated Press report, an analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year during the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people, if any accident happens in a densely populated part of the country.
Perhaps you will find this more distracting than talking on the phone while driving — especially if you are parked waiting for a train to pass by.