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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 (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.

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?

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48 Responses

  1. Chiming in: I completely agree with you. My city has a law on cell phones and driving, but most don’t obey it, and it is not enforced. Seen too many near collisions in parking lots with people talking on the phone in their cars.

    I’m one of those people that can’t do a cell phone and drive. I find it way to distracting to the driving. Scary. I support banning cell phones and driving. Even with a hands-free contraption. (Don’t come and hunt me down.)

  2. CA now has a law on cell phone use—it must be hands free but I think the way our brains are wired the cell phone and driving are not made for each other. I can not begin to count how many near misses and abuses I have observed or had a brush with involving someone driving and talking on a cell phone or obviously texting.

  3. I refuse to answer my cell phone while driving. I found myself “Wandering’ the few times I have made a call or answered my cell phone and it scared the bejeebus out of me!

    No…I do not believe anyone should be talking on a cell phone while they are driving. Too dangerous!


    Since we are on the subject of driving while distracted….I hate it when I see a woman putting on makeup, a man reading a map, someone eating a burger or and I’ve seen this far too many times….texting while driving!

  4. My experience is a bit different. I find talking on the phone (via a headset) is not very distracting to me, but talking to someone in the car is extremely distracting. Though just to be extra safe, when I get to anything complicated including intersections I will usually say (to phone or passenger) complicated bit, can’t talk, and I don’t talk (or listen) when that’s happening. But I’ve never had a problem with that even when I don’t get them to STFU.

    I’m also one of those very fast reaction type people. I still can’t understand what’s wrong with people’s brains. Probably drugs. 🙂

  5. The brain research on driving and phoning is consistent. You cannot do both at the same time safely. The brain is just not wired that way. Doesn’t matter if the phone is hands free or not. It is that the brain is engaged else where.

    A Virginia tech research study found that drivers using a hand-held device were at 1.3 times greater risk of a crash or near crash, and at three times the risk when dialing compared with other drivers.

    I have read other research that shows the brain cannot do two things at the same time. When people ‘multi-task’ what the brain is really doing is moving very quickly back and forth from task one to task two and over time may short out the brain.

    If I need to make a call while out I pull off the road and find some palce to stop.

    • I actually thought their risk was even higher than 1.3x. It’s equivalent to driving drunk in terms of accidents, and I was pretty sure that was more than 1.3x too.

      Still, if somebody is *really good* at time slicing (there is indeed no such thing, neurologically, as multitasking your attention) I could imagine that maybe they could make it work. The scientist in me wants to say “More research!”

    • I can talk on a cell phone and drive with full concentration (by minimizing my concentration on the conversation, of course) much better than I can read the crawlers at the bottom of the tv screen and listen to the broadcast…I don’t hear a thing being said on tv.

      • Me too, meee2 – aren’t able to listen and reading the crawlers simultanously.
        (Never heard the term “crawler” before. Love it!)

  6. I use my Onstar for calls while driving. It’s hands free and voice-activated. I spend 4-6 hrs per day on avg on the road when out of the office. My car has become my mobile office.

    It’s a necessary evil, but using the hands-free technology makes it equitable to having a conversation with a passenger. You can’t outlaw that without making conversation while driving a crime.

    BTW, how did we ever find our kids before. Cell phones?

    • How did we find our kids before? We didn’t. which is how come they (and we, and our parents before that) didn’t grow up crazy. Now that we can? I shall watch our future progress with considerable interest. 😀

    • Please read the NYTimes story, SOD. Hands free cell phoning while driving is not safe, not at all. Conversing with a passenger in your car is a whole different matter from chatting with an invisible someone on your phone. A passenger is generally alert to conditions on the road and can serve as a second pair of eyes. Safety on the road has got to be paramount. It needs to take precedence over convenience. Anything else is pretty nuts.

      • From what I saw, this study was incomplete; I don’t buy the argument that a “second pair of eyes” makes conversing with a passenger more safe. Every finding in every study is not valid by virtue of it’s status as a study. Dialing, texting, holding, or otherwise manipulating a cell phone IS unsafe. I don’t agree on the hands free part.

        • Isn’t the paramount issue here promoting the safety of everyone on the road, erring on the side of caution? Why even take the chance that you might be endangering the lives of others, not to mention yourself? The reporter who wrote the story for the Times responded to online reader comments with further statistics/studies on the dangers, including those from hands-free devices. There are comments from other traffic safety experts and at least one of them says that the safety of hands-free devices is an illusion. The most minor driver distraction can cause a fatal accident. All it takes is a split second.

          • Yes, safety is paramount; but taking that argument to it’s logical conclusion would lead to necessarily banning talking, listening to the radio, singing, changing the channel, using a GPS system, adjusting your climate, etc. Because each of those actys could be defined as “unsafe”

          • Actually, GPS systems are a safety issue. They’re a convenience for drivers, but one with a price for others on the road. Bottom line is that driving a car isn’t a birthright, it’s a huge responsibility. Sorry if I sound like a scold, but I’ve been the victim of a drunk driver who overturned my car and could easily have killed or paralyzed me. That accident made me look at driving very differently.

  7. This story about the govt. having buried studies about the clear dangers of cell phone driving was on the front page of the both the Austin & San Antonio papers this morning. Not exactly a big surprise that cell phone use, even hands free, is as dangerous as drunk driving. Seems the info was buried by the Bush admin. because of concerns about Congressional backlash (f*ckers). Can we just abolish Congress and start over? Also, this country has become incredibly selfish in so many ways. It’s more important to indulge in texting and talking away than to consider the safety of others on the road. Drunk drivers: bad – throw ’em under the jail. Cell phone addicts: kewl and beyond regulation.


  8. I absolutely hate to see people drive while talking on a cell phone. I’m especially pissed off about it in the school parking lot when all the parents are in a congested area picking up and dropping off children while carrying on a non stop conversation. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen and I’ve voiced my opinion so loudly, I doubt I’ll ever get elected PTA president.

    People can multi task and do a variety of things at the same time. That doesn’t mean you always should.

    • The whole multi-tasking thing is nutz and so typically American. It’s as if absorption in any one thing can’t possibly be enough.

    • And add to that the feeling of the kids who are being picked up and probably have a lot to tell after a long day away from home. – And then mom/dad more or less ignores them and carries on a conversation with someone, who’s not even present! Always breaks my heart to witness!

  9. Years ago I had a car phone with hands-free speaker. Didn’t matter whether I was hands-free or not–it was impossible to concentrate on the road and the conversation at the same time.

    What I would like to see is every automobile equipped with a jamming device for wireless communications. The car would allow you to communicate only while in Park–Drive, Neutral, Reverse would all be jammed. No transmissions would be jammed if the engine was turned off. Same should be true for drivers of trains or buses.

  10. I don’t like cell phones on the road, either, but I have to admit that seeing another driver on the road talking on the phone doesn’t scare me half as bad as watching somebody apply mascara while zooming along on the freeway. That’s something you see way too often in Los Angeles.

    • Applying mascara? Only a small problem so long as they’re not looking in the mirror while doing it, right? 😀

      • I thought you were from LA?

        I’ve seen women applying eye make-up while driving 75 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

        • Oops, I missed Cinie’s comment.

          I’ve also seen people eating cereal (one hand holding the bowl and the other the spoon, driving with their knees), shaving and reading the paper.

          (not all three at once though)

          • I once saw a gentleman driver with his passenger bent over his lap on the freeway. Hope he didn’t have to stop suddenly!

          • Also had a friend in college who could drive with his knees while he rolled a joint – now THAT’S multitasking!

          • gentleman driver with . . . what was that you said? Now that would be severely distracting. More so in your own car, but bad enough just zooming by at 80. . . .

            Eating cereal and driving with their knees? No doubt at 75mph? Yeah, LA traffic is a trip. I have one relative who refuses to visit me because she can’t stand the LA freeways.

    • I once saw a driver intently reading a large book propped on the steering wheel while she zigzagged along I-10 at 75 mph. I was boxed in next to her in the left lane for several minutes before I could get clearance and get the hell away. On the interstate, I’ve seen people shaving, applying make-up, brushing their hair, reading the newspaper, eating chicken, reading maps, fighting with their kids, staring at their laps forever (texting), almost completely oblivious to those around them. Sorry, but in general American drivers tend to be a pretty thoughtless lot. (Don’t get me started on tailgating – aaaarrgh.)

  11. Forget driving! I was walking with my toddler on the street and cell phone talkers were nearly mowing her off the road. Same these days with my dog. I hate the damn things!

    • That’s true everywhere. Grocery store….people on their phones standing in the middle of the aisle and totally unaware that others are also there trying to get their shopping done.

      Personally, I would love to see cell phones go away completely. What did we do before they appeared? Will our youth of today ever know the joy of being unavailable 24/7?

    • Remember the days when people on the street, apparently talking to themselves, were considered loonies? Lol, now they’re considered cool!

  12. See, even walking and using a phone can be dangerous:

    Teen Girl Falls In Open Manhole While Texting


  13. I saw a video once of a quartet playing at a small open air cafe. Some guy’s cell phone rings and he answers it. The musicians jump up and surround him while still playing their music, and don’t return to their original places until he hangs up the phone.

    • Love it!

    • heh. A friend was at a symphony concert a couple years back, and heard a phone ring during a concerto Lynn Harrell (cellist) was playing. He looked around, irritated, and then whipped his cell phone out of his pocket, opened it, turned it off, and then jumped back in with his solo passage. Funny, but if it had been a member of the orchestra, that person would have been fired. He gets away with it because he’s a musical big wig.

      I was playing a concert once in which someone in the audience actually ANSWERED her cell phone, and started saying, loudly, “I can’t talk now, I can’t talk now”. I glared and glared at her, but couldn’t get up and walk over and menace her with my cello, as much as I would have liked to.

    • I once participated in making a young man flustered leave the train before he reached his destination. We all openly followed his conversation and giggled to each other about it. Wonder why we normally are so discrete about other peoples (not so discrete!) conversations, that we try to ignore it?

      I’ve also – repeatedly – listened to hour-long discussions and conversations on the radio, when suddenly a phone rings. It turns out it is one of the guest’s phone. What! Did they plan to have a private conversation while on the air? Shaking head!

      • lord that’s another thing. I use public trans all the time…and how people shout their business on the cell phone is amazing! Then there is the inane conversations one endures if near by. It’s said a high stress point is over hearing your co workers inane conversations….well now we hear many many peoples dopey yakk-yi-yack. Progress! /snark

  14. I’m definitely not a cell phone fan and got rid of my last one 3 years ago.

    Maybe I’m just a private person; I resent being disturbed by a call when I’m not at home or at work. But also I dislike being tethered to electronics every waking moment. I get enough of that working in IT.

  15. I once listened to a book on CD while driving to work and about half way there I realized I didn’t know how I got there. All I could remember was the book – as clearly as if I’d been watching a movie!

    I shut it off and have never listened to it again.

    I have talked on the phone while driving but never had an experience approaching that with the phone – But, I recognize the danger and don’t do it any more.

  16. I totally agree with you, quixote. I swear, in city traffic I can detect a phoning driver from afar! I’m always proven right in my assumption!

    In Denmark it’s been illegal since 1998 to use hand-held cell phone while driving (even bicycle!) – and “everybody” still does it. The fine is $100, and endless discussions are going on about whether to make harsher penalties or not.

    The lawmakers await research about the danger of using not hand-held phones, before deciding whether to make that illegal too. I’d say make it illegal untill research shows it is not endangering!

    But then I’m also an advocate of zero tolerance when it comes to drinking and driving! I don’t like the promille discussion. You drink? You don’t drive! Period. (IMnotalwayssoHO)

  17. What I could remember, in retrospect, was how my focus shifted to talk.

    Exactly and good post! Living in a city, I don’t drive. It just didn’t happen. But speaking as a pedestrian , let me say drivers are in la la land already and cells put them on another planet .When someone is hit by a car , so often the driver says , “they jumped out in front of me” I translate that to ” I noticed them the last moment” We are in our own movie already, and what you say about focus shifting is very true. I bet different parts of the brain’s auto pilots are involved in driving and phone talking and keeping a foot in each would be difficult. Good thing you were in CA when that happened! lol!

  18. I think what does and doesn’t distract is a highly individual thing. I’m not distracted by the cell phone, because I never focus on the caller (except if I’m sitting at a light, or whatever), instead focus on the driving…and throw down the cell phone if needed. The person on the other end understands and it’s fine with me if they don’t.

    As a driver, you have to put driving first. I’ve seen people driving down the road looking at their toddler in the back seat, not the road. Not only is such a person putting me at risk, (s)he’s also putting the toddler at risk….what a parent! Tell me that passengers — especially young passengers — are less distracting than cell phones. I am guaranteed to laugh.

    Maybe children in cars should be outlawed too….or put behind sound-proof, visibility proof glass.

  19. Sounds like a rather huge majority feels like me on this issue, but there are also the people who don’t have a problem with it.

    In Australia, they used to have a rule that if you could prove you could handle high speeds, and didn’t have an accident, the speed limits didn’t apply to you. A guy clocked going 150mph or something phenomenal had his ticket rescinded when it turned out he was a professional race car driver.

    Maybe we need something similar in this case. The boffins need to figure out just how much distractibility is okay in traffic. Then a distractibility test could be a component of getting your license or getting it renewed. Sort of like eye tests now. If you can drive and talk, you’re okayed for cell phone use. If you score like I would, someone pushes you around in a pram.

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