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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Madsen: Drivers need more common sense

Two weeks ago, this column suggested bicyclists start a new trend in reflective clothing and forego dressing like ninjas. The majority of commenting bicyclists were, shall we say, defensive. Not defensive as in agreeing that driving defensively is sensible when one is sharing the road with large objects capable of flattening you. Defensive as in “it’s not us, what about the drivers?”

As promised, today drivers get their turn in the hot seat.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, “… motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of unintentional injury death (after poisonings), and the leading cause of major trauma. Motor vehicle injuries are largely preventable and are mainly due to human behavior rather than poor road design, vehicle issues, or weather.”

Rumble strips and strategically located passing lanes can help, but safer roads require safer drivers. As one signer of the petition for safety improvements on U.S. Highway 195 and state Route 26 commented, “… there are crazy drivers who pass regardless of safety, on blind curves and double yellow lines.” No amount of physical road improvements will prevent drivers from being idiots.

Impaired driving is the primary behavior problem underlying fatal crashes, often combining poor judgment with speed. The Department of Health includes alcohol, illicit drugs, prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications in its impairment definition. Driving drunk, buzzed or stoned is a bad idea, whether the substance is legal or not. It’s not just a New Year’s Eve problem. Call a cab, phone a friend, tap an Uber app, but don’t drive when impaired.

Then there are those distracted drivers we all point to (because it’s never us, right?). Answering the phone, balancing a hot cup of coffee, attempting personal grooming and texting, the newest distraction. The campaign against texting and driving has a great slogan for staying focused. Repeat to yourself as needed – It. Can. Wait.

Speed and impatience are killers. Last week on Interstate 90 headed into Spokane my husband and I observed the poster child for stupidly aggressive driving. Traffic had slowed behind two large trucks. One trucker was passing very, very slowly in the left lane, the kind of situation that makes everyone impatient. We grumbled and waited. In the mirror we saw a little red sportster zig zag through the line of cars, then dart around and cut us off. She kept probing behind the passing truck in the left lane like she might try to pass in the median. As soon as a tiny opening appeared, she cut off the truck in the right lane and continued to play bad passing games in holiday traffic.

And what did she gain? Three car lengths ahead of us at the top of the Sunset Hill. Less than a minute faster to her destination. Cross state drivers waste more time than that deciding between plain or peanut M&M’s while browsing the gas station candy rack. An impatient driver heading up Division Street at rush hour risks his own life and liberty and the lives of pedestrians and bicyclists for even less time. Slow down. We have a saying in the fire department as a reminder to keep adrenaline under control while driving: “It does no good to get halfway to the scene real fast.” Whatever you think your emergency is, it can wait.

Painted bike lanes don’t protect bicyclists, painted crosswalks don’t protect pedestrians, double yellow lines don’t protect drivers. A driver has the responsibility to drive according to road conditions. It doesn’t matter if poor conditions are a result of road design, icy weather or heavy traffic. It doesn’t matter if the traffic is on two wheels, four wheels or on foot. The root of the problem is human behavior.

But those petitioning for highway safety improvements on U.S. 195 and Route 26 are not wrong to want better roads. Upgrades to support increasing traffic already are planned, although funding is two to ten years out. State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, has suggested changing budget priorities. He has requested that $113 million budgeted for fish passage projects be shifted to upgrading highway safety sooner rather than later. The fish can wait.