Road Worrier

Soul-baring on cell-phone use elicits hot response

Staff WriterFebruary 2, 2010 

No, they weren't bragging - as some indignant readers supposed - about their texting and telephoning exploits behind the wheel.

"Our whole intention was to bring public awareness to something we think is a serious problem," says Buckley Strand berg, 49, a Rocky Mount insurance executive.

Strand berg and his daughter Tyler, 23, were flamed online and harassed in real life after they explained in a News & Observer story how their mobile phones sometimes pulled their attention away from their driving.

They said they were trying to do some good. What did they accomplish?

In details more harrowing than he apparently realized, Buckley told how he liked to get work done by phone and by e-mail during lonely drives on a rural highway. His daughter talked about three cars she had wrecked (luckily, no injuries) while texting and phoning.

Traffic safety experts say cell-phone distraction is a problem shared by many drivers, from young people who want to stay in touch to professionals who want to stay productive.

Other readers describe alarming examples they see every day: Commuters gabbing on phones and weaving like drunks. Carpoolers - and even police officers and school bus drivers - reading messages when they should be watching the road.

But it is rare to see candid admissions from phone-distracted drivers themselves.

Scores of readers rebuked the Strandbergs in online comments, and in calls and e-mail to The N&O. A handful announced personal crusades to have their drivers' licenses revoked and Buckley fired.

"Get smart before you kill yourselves or others," wrote Marie Zanchelli of Cary.

"Both of you should be ashamed by your own selfishness and lack of concern for other drivers," Debbie Johnson of Apex wrote. "Boredom seems like the better choice when you realize your actions have permanent consequences. Do what you both know is right, PUT THE PHONE DOWN."

Nancy M. Short of the Duke University School of Nursing offered another idea: "May I suggest that they use books on tape or a Kindle that will read to them? May I suggest psychotherapy to help them manage their impulse control?"

F.C. Brame of Charlotte suggested it was time for authorities to step in.

"With three wrecks on [Tyler's] record while texting, why does she still have a driver's license? It should be taken away. And ... what insurance company would be crazy enough to insure her crazy habits?" he wrote.

And K. Klecker of New Bern just wanted to know how to stay out of harm's way: "If these two cannot control their phoning/texting behaviors to times when it could be done safely, can we at least get them to post their itineraries so the rest of us can try to avoid them?"

'Borderline extortion'

Buckley thinks the critics misunderstood.

"I think there's obviously a group out there very concerned about this issue, as we are," Buckley said. "I don't think the original article was written in a manner to show how concerned we are about it."

He said he thinks his hands-free phone is no less dangerous than a hand-held one. And he favors laws to ban phone use for all drivers, as texting at the wheel now is banned in North Carolina.

His friends appreciate his intentions, he said. "But people who don't know me have been just ruthless in their attacks - to the point of doing damage to my property and borderline extortion with some threats against my business."

He declined to discuss details. But he consulted police and an attorney when an anonymous critic tried to involve an N&O reporter in an effort to force the Strandbergs into "phone addiction" therapy.

Meanwhile, Buckley said he and Tyler have become better drivers. But they haven't quite gone cold turkey.

Buckley has quit texting behind the wheel, and he doesn't talk on the phone in traffic. Sometimes if the phone rings while he's on a quiet road with no traffic, he'll take the call.

"I do believe it's a distraction. I don't believe you're concentrating on the road if you're in a telephone conversation," Buckley said.

"Because of the backlash and how strongly people felt about it, it has helped us. It has made me change my habits quicker than I thought I could by myself."

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