Back in March, during the early days of quarantine, one of my photographer friends posted a photo taken from the driver’s seat showing the empty highway stretched out before him. His caption, “it's never been safer to text and drive” was equal parts idiotic and infuriating. Not only was he taking a photo, but he was actively posting to Facebook while driving.
By now, we’ve all heard the statistics. We’ve been warned by our insurance companies. We know how dangerous distracted driving is, and yet, I see posts like this one all the time. Why is it so difficult for us to understand just how reckless this behavior is? Or do we understand and just don’t care?
I’ve commented on posts like this countless times over the years. I’ve sent private messages, I’ve made compassionate pleas, and I’ve gone on irate tirades. I’ve tried just about any angle to get people to listen. In this recent case, I commented right away, saying: “Ok, but you can still have a one-car accident since you’re not paying attention. Put down your phone.” A mutual friend chimed in, “Yeah, dude, she means business. She got me to stop taking photos and driving a few months ago.” Amazingly, I have gotten through to some, but in this case, my words had zero impact. This person continues to post photos and videos from the driver’s seat regularly. Traffic, storms, smoke from wildfires, you name it. He’s a one-man reporting team, and every time he posts from the road, he’s actively driving.
Maybe distracted driving is one of those things that you don’t deeply care about until you’ve had it impact you in some way. I first started taking it seriously when I learned about a friend of a friend from college, Jacy Good, whose parents were killed when a distracted driver caused a tractor-trailer to hit her family’s car on the way home from her college graduation. She barely survived what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. Learning about that tragic collision immediately changed my perspective on cell phone use of any variety while driving. I suddenly realized how lucky I had been over the years. We think we’re capable of multitasking, whether it’s talking on the phone, sending a quick text, or taking a photo, but the fact is, we’re not.
As a travel photographer, I understand the impulse to photograph your perspective behind the wheel. The world doesn’t stop being photogenic just because you’re traveling from point a to b; in fact, something about the open road in front of you just feels romantic and worth capturing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been on a highway at sunset and seen a view that I wished I could photograph with my camera or even my cell phone. While you’re on the road, you have access to so many fleeting views and rare perspectives that you just can’t duplicate from a scenic lookout or the next truck stop down the road. Maybe you try to convince yourself that you’ll just hold the camera up to the window and shoot blind on burst. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get a frame or two that’s worth keeping. It’s not really that much of a distraction if you’re not messing with camera settings or actively focusing on the camera, right?
Well, countless scientific studies have shown us that we’re just not that skilled at multitasking. According to The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, taking your eyes off the road for two seconds doubles your risk of getting into a crash, and it's not just about where you’re looking. Mental distraction is just as much of a problem. Even if you are only lifting your camera from the seat next to you to the window and shooting blindly, your attention is divided. You’re imagining the image you’ll get, or you’re thinking about how heavy the camera is at such an awkward angle. You’re not giving the road your undivided attention, and that’s when tragedies occur.
Even though photographing while driving seems like such an obvious danger, few statistics exist pertaining specifically to the act of picture taking behind the wheel. Organizations like Students Against Distracted Driving, The National Safety Council, and The National Transportation Safety Board have all compiled study after study to demonstrate just how dangerous distracted driving is, but an article published by AAA a few years ago comes closest to putting the seriousness of taking photos and video while driving in perspective:
Grab a quick selfie or an over the shoulder shot out the window and you’ve driven half the length of a football field. Shoot a 15-second Tik Tok video from behind the wheel and you’ve traveled the length of almost four football fields. As photographers, we only need a fraction of a second to make an image, but a fraction of a second is all it takes to cause irreparable harm to ourselves and others. It’s scary to think of it like that, and yet, it’s not uncommon behavior. Search for the hashtag “#whiledriving” on TikTok or Instagram, and you’ll be alarmed and astounded at just how many drivers on the road are more focused on creating content than arriving in one piece.
What about photos or videos taken while the camera is mounted on the dash? Hands-free means safe, right? Unfortunately, it’s not as safe as you might hope. Distracted driving is defined as anything that is dividing your attention from the road. Recording a video of you talking about the shoot you just had, or describing your commute, or even singing along to your favorite song is still dangerous. Your phone might be dash mounted. You might use voice controls to start recording. It doesn’t matter. You’re still thinking about what you’re going to say, or how you look, or any of a million other things when your only job is to safely drive the two-ton piece of machinery into which you’ve strapped yourself.
After being so deeply affected by her story, I was honored to photograph Jacy and her husband, Steve’s, wedding day in 2013. I’m so grateful that she survived her ordeal and has dedicated her time and energy to changing how we think and act when it comes to our behavior behind the wheel. I can’t imagine how many lives they’ve saved over the years with their work. When I told her I was planning on writing about distracted driving I asked if there was anything specific she wanted to say. She responded: "Research has demonstrated for many years that all usage of cell phones while driving is dangerous and potentially deadly. Continuing to engage in this activity is ignorant and selfish. There is nothing on a cell phone more important than a fellow human's life."
I’ll always remember when my dad handed me the keys to my first car at the age of 16. I was desperate to get out on the road, speed off, and enjoy some independence. He held the keys in front of me and said: “these aren’t the keys to a car, they’re the keys to a death machine.” It sounds heavy-handed, but it was a really important lesson for me to hear at that stage of perceived invincibility. We’re so used to thinking that nothing bad will happen to us. We’re conditioned to thinking about our safety in a passive way; even the words we use to describe crashes have a “not my fault” connotation. We call them “accidents” because it takes the sting of responsibility out of it. I’m guilty of it too. In writing this article I’m consciously thinking about not referring to what happened to Jacy’s family as an “accident,” and yet, I still had to delete the word and retype “collision.”
We need to get in the habit of thinking about our safety more actively. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our friends when it comes to risky behavior while driving. Right now, there are so many threats in the world to our health and safety. Natural disasters, disease, poverty: all of these things might feel beyond our control, but we each have the power and the responsibility to make the roads even a little bit safer. I hope you’ll join me in the effort to end distracted driving in your life and in the lives of those you care about. Commit to yourself to stop taking photos and engaging with your phone while driving, and when you see a friend post a photo or video taken from behind the wheel, hold them accountable for their behavior.
To learn more about Jacy and Steve’s work visit their website.