Last week, I saw a TV reporter doing a live shot from the side of the road discussing a report issued earlier that day by the National Transportation Safety Board which recommended banning the use of all cell phones while driving. It was already dark outside, and as cars drove by him with their headlights on, I couldn’t help but wonder how distracted they were by the light on top of the camera that was pointed at the reporter — and at the vehicles coming in the opposite direction. Maybe the NTSB should look into banning unnecessary live shots, and leave me alone so I can call my wife and explain that I’ll be late for dinner because there’s an accident ahead caused by a TV guy with a bright light shining in our eyes.
The NTSB’s recommendation is bad policy because it’s premature, based on anecdotal evidence, and ignores the technology learning curve.
Yes, it’s sad that 3,000 people died last year in accidents caused by distracted driving, but there’s not enough proof that cell phones were the primary cause. Drivers are distracted by all sorts of things in the car, from a crying baby in the back seat, to finding a radio station that didn’t go to an all-Christmas music format on Labor Day, to the passenger loudly explaining why the Rams still suck — not to mention juggling the Egg McMuffin and coffee they’re consuming on the way to work. Yet no one would dare suggest we only be allowed to sit behind the wheel alone with no audio, nor will any fast-food restaurants be forced to close their drive-thru windows anytime soon.
One of the anecdotes that led to the NTSB’s recommendation stemmed from an incident last year in the St. Louis area, when a pickup driver who had sent 11 texts in 11 minutes was paying so little attention to the road that he slammed into a tractor-trailer, and was then rear-ended by two school buses full of kids. The pickup driver and a 15-year-old died, and more than three dozen people were hurt.
That’s a bad accident, but no one should conclude from it that all cell phone use must be banned. Texting and talking are not the same thing, as they require different levels of concentration. Most states already have laws against texting, and some ban handheld phone calls, but what’s the difference between using a hands-free device and talking to someone you car pool to work with?
The NTSB’s decision is premature because we’re still fairly early in the cell phone technology timeline. When I got my first cell phone in 1994 when my wife became pregnant, most people didn’t have them yet. But in the last decade, with the explosion in popularity of iPhones, they’ve become omnipresent. There are now more cell phones than people in the United States — a number so large that the 3,000 deaths are a sad but small statistic.
Banning their use in cars ignores the learning curve required with any new technology. I’m sure that when a radio was first installed in a Model T, it took some time for people to get used to it. The same goes for the introduction of windshield wipers. Anything that caught the driver’s eye could become a distraction, but we adapted to them and figured out how to drive safely and enjoy those options. We’re still developing new multi-tasking skills behind the wheel with in-car navigation systems and other digital info on our dashboards. It’s called progress.
Moreover, the technology is getting better and more useful. Hands-free devices and bluetooth connections have helped, as have services like Siri and OnStar. With the former, I push one button on my iPhone (without having to look at it), tell a voice-recognition personal assistant who I want to send a message to and what I want to say, she repeats the info out loud, confirms that she has it right, and then sends it. With OnStar, you can push one button and speak to a live operator, who can give you directions to your destination or contact the cops to report the crash that was caused by another driver who, instead of using her cell phone, was applying mascara at 60mph.
Regarding that learning curve, I have no problem with laws that keep new drivers from using cell phones. A teenager who is still getting comfortable with highway speeds shouldn’t be on the phone, even with a hands-free device. But leave us multi-tasking middle-aged guys alone, because we’ve been ahead of the game since we mastered the ability to drive with our knees while enjoying a sandwich and a soda while singing along to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at top volume.
Will the NTSB’s report lead to legislation prohibiting all cell phone use in cars, not just texting? There’s already a federal ban set to go in place at the start of the new year for commercial truck drivers, and some companies already have regulations regarding cell phone use. But Rick Newman of US News told me last week that he doesn’t think politicians will take that step for all drivers…
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