Truck Tech

A Not-So-Gentle Reminder

It's never been easier to get distracted behind the wheel -- age and experience notwithstanding.

January 10, 2017

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Public Domain Photo
Public Domain Photo

As is customary, I found some time over the holidays and slipped down to Stewart, Alabama (which is basically just a name on a map – and nothing more), to go hunting one afternoon. I came back with more than I bargained for.

The weather has been horrible since the Fall, so I didn’t expect to see anything – and didn’t. It was dark when I came out, a little foggy and trying to rain. I got in the truck and started heading home.

Now, it used to be that when you went hunting, you were pretty much disconnected from the wider world out there. That’s not the case anymore. But since chattering away on the phone is not conducive to seeing game while you’re in a blind, I did have to catch up on a couple of phone calls. I opened a can of soda, took a sip and tucked it in between my legs, fished my cellphone out and called my dad back.

I pulled onto the narrow little country road that runs up to the main highway. I grew up running these backroads. So I tend to drive too fast on them. And this night was no exception. And it had been raining.

The details of the conservation aren’t important – although I will say that it involved family-related holiday stuff and I was having to explain to him for the umpteenth time that I, you know, actually have a life.

So, we were having a delightful time chatting when a pair of headlights crested the hill in front of me. I had my high beams on, so, instinctively, I took my hand off the steering wheel to flip the dimmer stalk. At the same instant, I realized the oncoming car was over in my lane – Probably because this idiot is on his cellphone, I thought without irony.

At that instant, I had no hands on the wheel.

In the next instant, I realized the oncoming car was drifting even further into my lane and that I was about to have a head-on collision. I snapped my left hand back on the steering wheel, told Dad that I had to go because I was about to have a car accident, tossed the cellphone into the passenger seat, and with both hands on the wheel now, whipped my pickup hard to over to the right to dodge the oncoming pickup – whose driver, had by now, frantically whipped his vehicle hard to his right.

I got my truck over, but these old country roads have notoriously uneven shoulders, so in the blink of an eye, I was half on, and half off the road and angling toward the ditch running alongside the road. I whipped the steering wheel hard left again and – luckily – my drive tire found enough traction to snap the front end back toward pavement. A couple of quick Dukes of Hazard fishtails followed as the oncoming truck flashed by on the left and suddenly my trusted old GMC was running straight and true down the blacktop. With my heart pounding, I took stock of the situation and realized that the floorboard under me was awash in soda – all things considered, a small price to pay for avoiding what would have been a serious crash.

Once the adrenaline jag had worn off and my fingers stopped tingling, I realized that was as close as I’d come to having an accident in 25 years or more. The more I reflected on the near-accident, the more I realized how very, very lucky I’d been. I realized a couple of other things, too.

First off, it’s important to remember that today, more than ever before, we have many, many distractions when we’re driving. When I was a teenager behind the wheel, the biggest distraction I had to deal with was fishing an AC/DC cassette out of the console while going down the road. Today there are any number of devices that can distract you. In my mind, I wasn’t distracted: After all, I wasn’t texting, or checking emails, Twitter or Facebook. I was just having a phone conversation. But it doesn’t matter. Even “approved” device use – cellphones, “infotainment centers,” or GPS maps, can grab your attention and refuse to let go. And, as I suddenly discovered, that can get you into a lot of trouble in the blink of an eye.

The other lesson here concerns complacency. As I said, I’d not been any near that close to having a wreck in over a quarter of a century. And, over that amount of time, you start to think in the back of your mind that accidents are something that happen to other people. But certainly not to you. Because you’re a good driver. You never have wrecks. You never text when you drive. So you get careless. And the next thing you know, you’re driving down a wet, narrow road too fast, drinking a soda and arguing with your father on a mobile phone and almost ending upside-down in a ditch in Hale County, Alabama.

But, as I was so rudely reminded that dark night, it can happen to you. Age and experience are no guarantees that you won’t have an accident; Even if I hadn’t been doing so many stupid things, I could’ve met the oncoming car in my lane at the crest of the hill and not had time to swerve out of his way.

So take it from me: It’s easy to get distracted behind the wheel these days. Don’t assume age and experience will automatically keep you out of trouble. Stay alert. Keep your hands on the wheel. And if you have to talk on your phone (assuming it's still legal in your state) wait unitl you're on a good, safe stretch of road to do so. And while you're at it, wait to argue with your Dad over the table at Christmas. You’re going to argue with him anyway. Why risk having an accident beforehand?

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Author Bio

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Jack Roberts

Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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