In Driven to Distraction: Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks, the New York Times tells us of Christopher Hill, of Oklahoma City. Last September, at the age of 20, Mr Hill hit an SUV at 45 miles per hour and killed its driver... because, as he freely admitted, he was using his cell phone and didn’t see the red traffic light.
Later, a policeman asked Mr. Hill what color the light had been. “I never saw it,” he answered.
Despite that “[e]xtensive research shows the dangers of distracted driving,” despite that “[s]tudies say that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers,” people continue to use their phones, hand-held or hands-free. They make voice calls, they text. They use other devices — CD players, MP3 players, GPS systems, and others — that seriously distract them from driving. Those distractions often result in horrific collisions that would never have happened if the drivers involved had been, well, driving, rather than playing with their electronics.
We’ve always had distractions in the car. Parents have dealt with their children, people have fiddled with the radio, smokers have lit cigarettes while driving for decades. But it’s just getting progressively worse as we adapt more technology to the car. More, and smaller technology.
Remember when the car radio had a large button to turn it on and change the volume, and six large buttons to select predetermined radio stations? Compare that to finding a CD (do you find the writing as small and hard to read as I do?), taking it out of its case, ejecting the CD that’s already in the player, putting it somewhere, and inserting the new one into a narrow slot. You may well have crashed before you found the “eject” button. And scrolling through songs on a minuscule iPod screen, or entering an address with the touch-screen of your navigation system may be even more challenging to attention that should be given to the road and the traffic around you.
Then here’s another thing: the studies don’t just show that handling the cell phone is dangerous. Sure, when you have to look at the phone to enter a phone number or find someone in your address book, you’re especially vulnerable. But even with a hands-free system and voice calling, just having a conversation on the phone is dangerous — almost the same danger, whether you’re holding the phone or not.
Having a conversation with someone who is not present, it turns out, is what’s far, far more distracting than you imagine. Partly, it’s that a passenger who’s present can help keep a watch, and will at the very least adjust the conversation to allow for traffic issues. And partly, it’s that talking with someone who isn’t there is cognitively different, engaging brain functions that need to be focused on the task of guiding your one-ton hunk of metal safely through the obstacle course around you.
And yet, the denial continues:
“It’s not as if you are going to be able to take this away from people,” [Joe Berry, Ford’s director of business and product development] said of phones and other devices in cars. “They simply won’t give it up.”Well, yes, but, you see, if you stuff yourself with doughnuts, and fried cheese dipped in mayonnaise, you aren’t going to suddenly become a missile capable of taking out a hapless family two lanes over. If you want to eat yourself into your grave, that may be sad, but it doesn’t affect random victims on the road. This is very different.
Mr. Berry compared the situation to eating unhealthy foods. “We, as people, don’t want to stop doing things that aren’t in our best interest,” he said.
You are going to take this away from people, if you can get legislators with the backbone to do what has to be done and executives to enforce the laws. They key is to stop listening to the whining about what people want to do, and to start holding them accountable for what’s not safe. People want to speed, too, and people do. But that doesn’t stop us from passing laws against it and giving out speeding tickets, does it?
 Unless, of course, you should have a major MI while you were driving, but the timing isn’t likely to play out that way.