We got another rude awakening lately about the lethal mix of cars and cell phones. Apparently, even the use of hands-free devices significantly compromises safety on the road, perhaps by falsely reassuring drivers that they’re not distracted. Talking on the phone while behind the wheel is roughly equivalent to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level (the threshold for drunk driving), and quadruples one’s chances of getting into an accident. Yikes.
It’s tempting to launch into a lecture here about how we all need to stop multi-tasking. But do lectures really work when the behavior is so—well, addictive? Instead of the appalling decision of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to withhold the data about the dangers of hands-free devices from the public, we urgently need sane legislation and public agency involvement to tackle this problem. But we also need to understand just how enticing the behavior is.
There’s nothing wrong with multi-tasking as in listening to string quartets while unloading the dishwasher while walking a crying infant around the kitchen. Not a totally present-in-the-moment practice, but our culture so embraces this kind of efficiency that most people find it nearly impossible to resist combining activities. On the addiction continuum, this kind of “recreational juggling” is analogous to social drinking. Responsible use.
But what happens when more! quicker! better! gradually becomes a habit, and the heady delight of balancing compatible tasks morphs into a dangerous compulsion? As Marilyn Monroe said in Some Like It Hot, “I can stop anytime I want to. I just don’t want to.” We can’t be easily talked out of the driving/cell phone combination any more than kids can be convinced with a wagging finger not to binge drink. That’s why states should make it illegal to drive while engaging in non-emergency phone chats, and heavily fine drivers who get into accidents that way.
As for me, I’ve convinced myself that I’m cautious because I’ve been dialing only at red lights (my cell is too old to be compatible with Bluetooth, and I’m way too cranky about the planned obsolescence of the cell phone industry to upgrade). I’ve been using the speaker phone, reasoning that it’s the same as having a passenger with me (it isn’t). I don’t text, and I consider myself to be very cautious and aware of distractions.
But what’s so urgent in my life that I can’t pull over for a few minutes if I need to talk?
Clearly we’re on our own here. It was officials at the Department of Transportation that urged the NHTSA to keep the cell phone/driving research under wraps for years, until public advocacy groups finally succeeded in forcing the release of this crucial information. Meanwhile, Ford Motors—ever the visionary leader—has been working on a way of letting drivers use phones, access music and surf the net with voice control. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Sorry, family and friends, I won’t be talking to you while driving anymore. Oh, and I’m keeping my outdated phone.
Published in the Piedmont Post July 29, 2009