No Breathing Today

Copyright © by Len Holman, 12/27/11


  The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a nationwide ban on mobile phone use in cars, including hands-free use.  They claim that cell phones cause drivers to be more distracted than they would be if they were talking to a live passenger.  Of course, this has set off the American public, which can’t be bothered with domestic policy decisions or global warming or Iraq’s pending implosion, or Israel’s loss of its original identity and its resulting increasing bellicosity towards Iran.  No, we are concerned with four main things:  autos, sex, guns, and electronic toys, all of which can be indulged in within the confines of our cars. 

  So the NTSB is rowing against the tide already when it suggests we give up one of these things, especially when Americans hear it’s for their own good.  It is estimated that over three thousand fatalities last year involved distracted drivers.  Since Pew research estimates that 13.5 million Americans are using handheld devices (no, I mean phones.  The research doesn’t cover sex toys, more’s the pity), that’s not a bad percentage.  There seems to be no research on what constitutes a distraction, but long-legged blondes jogging in spandex shorts probably constitute a large portion of male inattention to the road.  There are, however many people up in arms about this and some critics even have arguments to support their position. 

  Many new cars come equipped with keen stuff, electronic stuff.  GPS navigation, in-cabin phones using verbal commands, and video players—all of which commit the driver to pay attention to something other than that idiot in the next lane talking dirty to his girlfriend on his smart phone and weaving over the line.  If phone talking is distracting, why shouldn’t Ford cars be forced to do away with Synch, which connects to a phone via Bluetooth?  Just because the thing wasn’t purchased at a Verizon store or at Best Buy doesn’t make it less distracting, the argument goes.  And what about that business of finding your way from point A to point B?  Does anyone recall using a map to find the interstate?  Or going to a gas station (which didn’t have a mini-mart attached) to buy a handful of maps for the family trip to grandma’s?  Isn’t unfolding and orienting a paper map while you’re driving more distracting than listening to a soothing baritone or some sultry come-hither voice telling you to take the very next exit?    How many people actually stopped at the side of the road to find the next interchange on a map?  Didn’t they mostly try to drive 70 and read that map while steering with their knees?  And what about plain old radio or listening to oldies on a CD?   Isn’t that distracting too? 

  Well, various brain-state tests show that the three pound chunk of meat in your skull lights up in amazing ways when you’re talking on a phone as opposed to talking to a live person next to you.  I’m afraid that the NTSB is a little late.  Years late.  People think they need their phones the way they need air.  The NTSB might just as well have decided to call for a No-Breathing Tuesday.  One man, interviewed on the CNN website, explained he liked to be able to maximize his time.  He admitted that at stop lights he texts, checks email, reads news stories, looks at Facebook and posts to Twitter.  This is a man with more time than sense, not to mention living in a town with very long waits at a red light.  But, why does he need to maximize his time?  Why does he need to post to Twitter?  What does he tell the Twitterverse?  “I am at a very long stop light”? 

  If distraction is a problem (and I have personal experience with this, having almost been run off the road by a woman with her hand and phone covering her view of the entrance to the freeway she was trying to merge onto), then what can be done about it?  Declaring that electronic devices be banned from cars doesn’t seem to be the answer.  That ship has sailed.  So many toys, so little time.  Drivers may pause from their tweeting to change lanes—if they pause at all, but regard their in-car phones and GPS units and smart phones as being divinely handed down along with those stone tablets Harrison Ford was looking for.  Remember that mandatory 55 mph law during the oil crisis of the 70s?  Remember how many people drove 55 on the freeway?  In California, people are doing 55 just getting out of their driveways.  If the public decides something is not worth their attention, they will not attend to it—a real grassroots movement.  No official or semi-official declaration can dissuade that reluctant, resistant 99%.  The NTSB’s pronouncement is the 55 mph edict of our time and doomed to suffer the same end because few will accept it and cops will have an impossible time enforcing it. 

  But the NTSB has no legislative power and there is little chance of getting a divided congress to pass anything like this kind of legislation.  Some critics complain that even if drivers do NOTHING on their phones, there are still those pesky incoming calls which must be answered.  Of course they must.  I recall living on the top floor of an apartment building, coming home at the same time as a woman several doors down who was carrying a huge bag of groceries and an equally large purse.  Her apartment phone began to ring (in the days of landlines, people had to GO to their phones, not carry them around like Charo’s Chihuahua).  She became frantic, shifting her groceries while digging in her purse for her keys.  The end result?  Groceries over the rail, down two floors to the sidewalk, but she DID get her keys and she rushed into the apartment to answer that demanding ringing.  Now phones are with us every moment of the day and when we take them with us in our cars, we combine two American traditions—a very powerful force, not to be quashed by the mere declaration of some bureaucratic agency. 

  So, if distraction by electronics is the disease, what’s the cure?  If the disease is with us forever, if there is no cure, can we at least ameliorate the symptoms?   Should we?  Maybe evolution will help.  Brains might evolve to compartmentalize, separating the electronic noise from traffic, so that distraction would be much less of a problem.  The brains that couldn’t do this would cause fatalities and those people would not reproduce.  There might be some collateral damage, but long-term, changing lanes would be safer.  Or maybe cars, roads, and traffic will evolve, so that no one has to pay attention to anything but the porn film on your screen while the automated system delivers you safely to your destination.  Whatever happens next, we will need some out-of-the-box thinking to keep our roads safe and free from piles of wreckage, or else wait for Mother Nature and/or technology to weed out the unfit, leaving the roads and freeways for the highly-evolved rest of us.


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