By Michael Willard
Americans do a lot of things while driving our automobiles along roadways of this nation. Yes, we are doing more than keeping our hands on the steering wheel, focusing on the path ahead and charging our machines of fiberglass and metal along paved streets and highways.
And just as plenty of Americans stay busy behind the wheel, I recently discovered the bicycle riding public of Amsterdam juggle just as many activities as they pedal the preferred mode of transportation along the canals of Holland. Yet, while the Dutch manage to balance a bicycle while accomplishing a variety of menial activities, their distracted driving poses a distinctly different danger than those created by the multi-tasking motorists in the U.S. of A.
When you think about it, there aren't many things American drivers can't do while operating their automobiles. We eat breakfasts, lunches and dinners behind the wheel of our automobile, washing it all down with the help of soda cup straws and bottles of other beverages. The most talented of drivers can hold a Bojangles biscuit and a cup of coffee while steering our car and making appropriate lane change signals (not that I would know anything about that). Meanwhile, we tune radio dials, adjust iPods or manage CDs while our vehicles are hurling along the road at 70 mph. We fiddle with the A/C, the visor, the seat belt and the mirrors. We make phone calls and even text message, regardless of whether the activity is illegal. Some folks smoke, operate computers and even read — sometimes all at the same time.
Along the streets that line a system of Dutch canals, the people of Amsterdam do many of these same things. During a recent European adventure, my wife and tested our skills and our luck cycling among the Dutch in The 'Dam. As we did, we saw the expert cyclists doing anything and everything while managing to keep their two-wheeled transportation moving forward. We saw bike riders making phone calls, sending text messages, adjusting iPods, eating and drinking all while pedaling along cobblestone and paved streets of Holland's largest city. We even saw people walking their dogs while riding a bicycle — one hand on the leash, one hand on the handlebars. Of course as we Americans know, you don't necessarily need to have any hands on the wheel — or handlebars — to drive.
Like us, the Dutch are real multi-taskers when it comes to commuting and completing errands that require some mode of transportation. I'm also fairly sure that, for better or worse, like us, they also operate their chosen transportation in various levels of sobriety — or lack thereof.
However, there is a distinct difference between distracted, drunk driving while riding a two-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle and completing unimportant tasks while driving a four-wheeled hunk of metal at 70 mph. For instance, if a distracted, drunk bike rider has a wreck, the one most endangered in the person pedaling. Worst case scenario for a bike wreck — even if other bikes are involved — are a few scrapes and bruises, maybe even a black eye, broken nose and a serious case of wounded pride. In Amsterdam there's even an outside chance that inattentive bike-riding could send you into a canal, which is really only a problem if you can't swim. All in all, unless you really screw up and crash into a tram, chances of a serious injury or fatality caused by a bike wreck are pretty slim. That's not to say it is OK to operate a bicycle while intoxicated or distracted, particularly if you hold a high-profile position in which you are public representative of justice for citizens who pay your salary with their tax dollars. It's just that a bike wreck, ordinarily, isn't going to result in much more than minor injuries and a little humiliation.
Operating an automobile while distracted or intoxicated is an entirely different scenario. Distracted, out-of-control automobile operation endangers the driver as well as every other motorist on the roadway. A wreck in a speeding automobile routinely results in serious injuries to the driver, the passengers and, more often than not, other innocent individuals operating their own vehicles. Unfortunately, no matter how many times we see people hurt or killed as a result of distracted driving, we still rarely hesitate to answer the phone, chow down on a biscuit or tweak the radio dial while we're driving our cars along the road.
Realities like this make me wish our community was more reliant on two-wheeled pedal power to get us from point A to point B. In absence of an unlikely, diametric shift in our transportation preferences — not to mention our geographic decisions related to our living, working and shopping locations — it is worth remembering the potential dangers of distracted or intoxicated automobile driving are more severe than falling into a canal. I, for one, and going to keep that in mind when the cell phone rings the next time I am on the way to work while eating my Bojangles breakfast.
Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition. Reach Willard at firstname.lastname@example.org .