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I have Issues with cell phones

Let me start by boasting about my driving. In over forty years on all kinds of roads, I’ve had two accidents, both of them fender benders. One was thirty five years ago in Afghanistan. Driving there was, shall we say, different. And the other one happened at three mph in one of those parking lot traffic jams about twenty years ago. My car, being a reliable Japanese thingy, didn’t even have a smudge on it. The other car needed $900 worth of work. The US at the time did not require car bumpers to withstand at least 5mph impacts.

Okay. So that’s point one. Very safe driver. Point two is that, like all Boston drivers, (that’s where I learned to drive), I’m brilliant. I swear, I could be a fighter pilot. My reaction times are still faster than twenty year-olds, at least judging by the amount of time it takes them to wake up when the light turns green. Part of me is kind of looking forward to getting doddery enough so that other drivers no longer make me nuts with how long it takes them to see anything.

Now we get to cell phones. (I told you we’d get there eventually.) I’m not big on phones, and I hadn’t used them while driving. One day about five years ago I decided it was time to get with the program. I took a call while I was on one of those California town roads: four broad lanes in each direction, perfectly straight, well-behaved drivers, and slow traffic. I was being very careful about the whole thing, so dialing while driving was going to be the advanced course. My part of the conversation started a bit disjointed, but gradually it got better.

The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of the intersection — eight lanes north-south and eight lanes east-west, it takes time to cross an intersection that big — with two walls of polite California drivers, who had a green light, waiting for me to get out of the middle of the road. I’d sailed into the intersection with the red light right in front of me. Nobody even honked.

In Boston, I would have been jam.

The thing that really freaked me out is that I, me!, the fighter pilot!, could have no conscious recollection of the stretch of road from wherever I lost it to when I woke up in the intersection. That was the stretch when my conversation got less disjointed. What I could remember, in retrospect, was how my focus shifted to talk. The fact that I was armed with a two ton steel mass carrying considerable inertial force evaporated as a concern.

Ever since then, I don’t buy the objection that phoning is just like any other distraction. It’s not remotely like anything else. I’ve never lost consciousness of the road because I was talking to a passenger, fiddling with the radio, or eating burritos. It’s a different feeling entirely. I’m not saying they’re as safe as paying total attention, but none of those make you forget where you are.

I’m sure it’s possible to train yourself to be less of a basket case in cell phone use than I am, but I’m also sure that the shift in focus is part of human brain hardwiring. (Which indeed turns out to be the case [1] (pdf).) You can compensate for it better than me, but that’s all anyone can do: compensate more or less. When it’s less for whatever reason, then people get maimed or killed [2].

I think we’re insane to allow people to drive without their minds in gear. I think people aren’t thinking straight if they want to drive a two-ton weapon while some indeterminate amount of their brains are in phonespace. As I see it, cell phone use while driving should be banned. If you absolutely must discuss babysitting arrangements or how much milk to buy, pull over to the side of the road and then talk. And the same goes for texting, obviously. Don’t get me started on texting while driving.

Well, that’s my rigid and uncompromising viewpoint. But I’ve written this because I’m curious. Does anyone else see it that way, too? If you think you, personally, can handle it, do you think it would be a good idea to outlaw it for most people? Or see how well they do on distraction tests first? In my ideal world, there would be no cell phone use in cars. How do you see it in your ideal world?

cell phones, driving, hang up and drive