Buzzzzz, buzzzzzz … that little sound pulsing from our phone commands our attention to look, read and respond.

Like sailors drawn to sirens’ songs, we seem perilously drawn to the tantalizing ringing, beeping and buzzing of our phones — all too often with the same destructive results.

How did we get so quickly, completely and overwhelmingly conditioned to immediately respond to our electronic devices? Why is it that multi-tasking while driving has become socially acceptable? What are the long-term consequences of these new behaviors?

April is “Distracted Driving Awareness” month. As we look ahead toward a summer full of people walking, biking and driving on Maine’s roads, it is worth thinking about distracted driving.

For me, the subject is very personal. Almost two years ago, on a nice spring evening in May, I was out for one of my usual weekly 25-mile cycling loops in Androscoggin County. About six miles from the completion of my ride, suddenly, and without any warning, I felt an intense whack to my rear and was sent flying off my bike. Later I learned that my left ankle was severely injured.

When I regained consciousness, I was in the roadside brush. I began to scream out in pain, crying for someone to help me.


The driver who hit me called 9-1-1, and I understand that he admitted that he was probably traveling at 50 mph and didn’t see me until the moment of impact. An investigation revealed that he had sent a text approximately five minutes before the crash and received three more texts prior to the crash and may have viewed Facebook in that time span as well.

A crash reconstruction demonstrated that the driver should have been able to see me on the roadway long before the crash and that “at four seconds from impact (293 feet from the crash) I would have been clearly identifiable as a bicyclist.”

Close your eyes and slowly count to four. Now, imagine you are traveling at 50 mph. Regardless of whether the driver was on his phone or simply allowing his mind to wander, he was clearly driving distracted.

I was lucky. Several surgeries and months of rehabilitation have enabled me to return to most of my regular activities and my work as a physician at a reduced work capacity. My left ankle is now “serviceable.” I was fortunate to have not suffered a permanent brain injury.

As someone who has experienced the consequences of distracted driving, I am committed to making sure that others understand the full extent of the problem. People need to understand that multi-tasking isn’t efficient — it is deadly and destructive. Even when we aren’t actively reading and writing texts on our phones and other devices, they can be dangerously distracting us from driving.

In 2016, 3,450 people were killed in crashes related to distracted driving. In 2015, 391,000 people were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers. Those are just the reported cases. We know there are more.


Teen drivers are reportedly the highest cohort of distracted drivers. Sadly, 10 percent of all drivers 15-19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted drivers at the time of the crash. However, the epidemic has rapidly spread to all ages.

As a society, we simply cannot afford to continue driving distracted. When we do, we risk the lives of our families, neighbors and community members, as well as our own lives.

Bicycle riders are particularly at risk of harm because of distracted driving, but so are mailmen, electricians, construction workers and children walking to school.

While better distracted driving legislation and law enforcement are important parts of the solution, distracted driving is an epidemic that we have the power to control with our own behavior. A setting on some cell phones can be changed to prevent incoming texts from being delivered while driving. Also, parental example and employer-driven policies can help. Children and teens also have the potential to lead the sea of change.

Just as Odysseus ordered his men to seal their ears with beeswax to avoid the temptations of the sirens and prevent shipwrecks, we have the tools, capacity and technology to seal off the distractions in our vehicles and prevent traffic deaths.

Everyone can help prevent tragedies like mine from happening to others. Please join me in making distracted driving in Maine taboo.

Michael Rifkin, M.D., is a board member of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. He lives in Greene.

Michael Rifkin

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.