Monday, July 18, 2011

There's Nothing Wrong with Talking on a Cell Phone While Driving

How is talking on a cell phone any different, or any more distracting than talking to someone in the backseat? Really, how is it different? In one case I'm talking to a flesh and blood person in the backseat; in the other case I'm talking to a machine that is relaying their voice from a distant location. What is the difference? How is (A) the most normal thing to do in a car since cars were invented, and (B) is illegal in a dozen states? Why person good machine bad? What if I put the phone in the backseat, put a wig and a sweater on it, and buckled it in, and then talked to it. Would that be okay? Or how about talking to someone who's in the car - but who communicates through one of those larynx voice machine amplifiers? Would that be bad? It's talking via machine, right?

Yes, I'm pissy. And it's because my state, Nevada has jumped on this moronic bandwagon and passed a no cell phone law. Now, instead of laughing at my friends in other states who have to deal with this, I'm going to be the one dealing with it. Now, starting January, instead of calmly and freely using the phone in my car, I'm going to have to be furtive and constantly on my guard using the phone in my car.

To me, it's always been simple. Talking while driving is normal. People seemed to realize this in the seventies when car phones were a fancy luxury and no one was making the point that they posed some kind of hazard. If they had, they would have been laughed out of the room. How could talking on a phone be dangerous if talking to the person next to you was fine?

And don't say it's because I need both hands on the wheel. Cause here's the secret: the no-cell-phone people don't care about this - the hands issue. For them it's entirely about distracted drivers. They're not satisfied with hands-free headsets as a compromise. They want all calls banned. Here's (former) New York Times' house ethicist Randy Cohen on the subject:

"Do not make that call. Or blindfold a driver or bang a pair of cymbals near his head or do anything else that significantly ups his odds of getting into an accident. To talk on a cell phone while driving does just that. One study calibrates the increased risk as akin to driving drunk. While there are other driver-distracting activities -- listening to the radio, whittling -- this one is particularly hazardous. For a driver to deliberately increase his own peril is unwise; to endanger other people is unethical. You should not abet either.

Incidentally, the increased risk has little to do with your hands and much to do with your head: It is a cognitive problem, a shifting of your concentration from the road to the call. That many states, including New York, bar drivers only from using hand-held phones is an act of breathtaking cynicism or dazzling ignorance. They might as well ban only gray cell phones but allow black ones."

Ah, Randy Cohen. Despite his urge to nanny and his wrongheadedness on this subject, he accidentally does me a favor. He concedes the hands point entirely, where he probably has the stronger case, and instead stakes everything on distraction. I'm guessing he had some personal reasons for this. Maybe Randy enjoys a little Starbucks coffee while he drives, and therefore the Einhander argument could potentially have implications in the Cohen-mobile.

(Now, incidentally, I don't need both hands to drive. I've always driven with one on the wheel. To me one hand at 12 o'clock is the most natural driving posture in the world. When the day comes when I have to execute some kind of Jason Bourne style super turn, jamming the handbrake while simultaneously doing a 180 and then speeding down some narrow European side street while tiny police cars zip by blaring that weird Euro-siren, then yes - on that day I'll need two hands. Until then, give me a fucking break.)

So really, it's all about distraction. While I wait on an answer for my "how is it different than talking to someone in the backseat" question - and I know I'll be waiting a while - let's talk a little more about distraction. Of course there are distractions in a car. Fiddling with the radio knob is a small distraction. Answering a question that someone in the passenger seat just asked you is a distraction. Adjusting the AC to get it just right is a distraction. Sipping coffee is a distraction. But do all of these things add up to danger? Well.... no. Driving simply doesn't demand total concentration and rapt attention. It demands a significant percentage of those things, but not some kind of absolute focus.

There are levels and there are degrees. Handling a curvy portion of the autobahn on a crowded day in a driving rain demands one level of concentration from the driver, and your predictable commute on a straight line road in light traffic at 30mph demands a second kind. A seasoned driver knows how much of his mental focus is required to drive safely, and how much can be diverted to secondary activities, like adjusting a volume knob or chatting with the person sitting next to you.

That I should have to point out something so obvious and that this reasonable position flies in the face of the New York Times' ethicist's own, and now Nevada law is unsettling. It's been apparent since Henry Ford that conversations in a car are not dangerous, and that other similarly ordinary and everyday distractions are not big issues for drivers. I can only conclude that there's some kind of technophobia at work on the part of the banners, or, in Randy's case, just the basic totalitarian pleasure of instructing others on what they may and may not do. Just that warm feeling in the sternum that you get from imposing your own preferences on other people, hectoring them, chiding, and then finally forcing obedience.

January's not that far off. When it arrives - come and get me po po. Didn't Randy Cohen once say that we're not obligated to obey unjust laws? It was probably in the context of excusing someone for forging social security numbers for illegal Guatemalans, but I'll take him up on it just the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Never mind that lots of studies show that using a mobile phone while driving is associated with car accidents. The fact America doesn't have a public health system makes it even more important to save stupid people from themselves.