Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Making a Call for Safety
This past Saturday, when rehearsal for our church choir's Christmas concert concluded, I walked to my car.
I got inside, checked my cell phone, and saw that I had two new messages. So, I listened to my voicemail, and I returned my calls.
As I did so, I noticed three other choir members make their way individually to their parked cars, get inside, and then sit, like I was doing, listing to their cell phone messages and returning calls. I could tell, because they kept holding little cell-phone-shaped devices up to their ears.
So there we all sat, in one of our church's parking lots, in our vehicles, conducting personal business on our cell phones.
Before we drove away.
We got on our cell phones and got done what needed to get done before we got onto city streets and freeways. That's how responsible drivers use their cell phones.
Childishness by the Public Usually Leads to the Nanny State
Unfortunately, my fellow choir members and I this past Saturday are in the minority. Not only because our church still has a chancel choir, and not even because we sing in it. But because we respected our responsibility as safe drivers.
When other drivers abdicate that responsibility, who needs to compensate for that? This is the question our government has decided it needs to answer by recommending a ban on using cell phones while driving.
Admit it: we haven't needed our National Transportation Safety Board to identify drivers' use of cell phones as a dangerous behavior. We all know it is.
The question is who protects the driving public from drivers who refuse to discontinue dangerous behaviors like cell phone use while driving?
I'm looking around, and I don't see anyone else but the government. As unpleasant a notion as generating even more legislation may seem.
Not that banning cell phones in the interest of public safety would be a precedent. A similar argument was used for creating mandatory seat belt laws. The theory goes that even though a seat belt won't keep you alive in every automobile crash, people who wear them have a greater survival rate than those who don't. Plus, wearing a seat belt helps keep drivers behind the wheel where they can better maintain control of their vehicle before they ever crash. And hopefully avoid an accident altogether.
But with cell phones, the argument that banning their use strikes at more than just personal safety. Many people conduct business on their cell phones while driving. They check up on their kids, or their spouse. They order dinner, they console a friend, or they call for directions out of a dangerous neighborhood.
You have to be flat-out ignorant to ignore the safety benefits of wearing a seat belt - benefits which help ameliorate the consternation of having government-mandated seat belts. Nevertheless, the fact that we need to have a law requiring seat belt use demonstrates how belligerent the driving public can be when it comes to common sense. But cell phones aren't exactly seat belts; they have so many uses, and they've rapidly become practically indispensable for many people.
Couple the cell phone's perceived indispensability with our distaste for draconian laws against popular behavior, and the NTSB isn't winning many friends with their recommendation yesterday to ban all forms of cell phone use by drivers of moving vehicles. Such a ban would include not only hand-held phones, but hands-free phones and texting. The only exception would be in case a driver needs to call 9-1-1.
Although I'd like to think that we don't really need such a law, the statistics appear to prove differently. And even anecdotal evidence suggests that far too many people assume they're the exception to the rule when it comes to distracted driving. We've all driven or ridden past vehicles where the driver is floating around their lane, obviously so engrossed in their telephone conversation that what's happening on the roadway is of secondary concern at best.
Many of us - even when we're not on the phone as we drive - have forgotten that driving is not supposed to be a solitary activity. When we turn on the engine to our vehicle, and back out of our driveway, we automatically begin a civic endeavor, becoming a joint user of a public conveyance. We enter a realm in which we share reciprocal responsibilities with every other driver. A realm in which safety for all of us is Job Number One.
Just getting from Point A to Point B doesn't matter if we cause a wreck along the way. Or get involved in one.
Driving is not blank time. It is not the dead zone between Point A and Point B. Just because driving is so routine doesn't make it any less important as an activity. Cars don't have autopilots, like planes do, because our pathways aren't as restricted as those for airplanes. We don't ride on rails, like trains, whose courses are controlled by engineers hundreds of miles away. And as America's streets become more and more congested, drivers are getting bombarded with more and more things to compromise safety.
In addition, our driving public has had more than a decade's worth of practice to adapt to driving while on cell phones, and we just haven't done a good job of it. When cell phone technology was first introduced, America's drivers had a prime opportunity to demonstrate that we could handle the responsibility of driving safely while on the phone, but unfortunately, we blew it. Maybe not you specifically, or me, but drivers in general.
Clarifying the Conversation Conundrum
Admittedly, frequent rebuttals to this idea include the valid contention that oftentimes, a person-to-person conversation with somebody riding in a vehicle with the driver can also be distracting.
Yet consider the difference in scenarios between passengers in the same vehicle all having a conversation, and people in two different places having a conversation. Everybody riding in the same car likely will have a greater awareness of their shared surroundings, and be able to interpret compromising situations, cutting off conversations so the driver can make impromptu maneuvers to avoid danger. Things like bumper-to-bumper traffic, or a car weaving towards yours at high speed: everyone in the car shares a vested interest in letting the driver address each situation with minimal distraction.
Compare that to talking with somebody driving a vehicle you're not inside of. You're completely excluded from the driver's immediate environment. You aren't aware of the moment-to-moment conditions they're facing and needing to accommodate. In such conversations, both you and the driver will more likely attempt to continue an active dialog regardless of safety threats encountered by the driver and completely unbeknownst to you. Or, the driver will slow their vehicle down so dramatically - or weave about mindlessly as they talk to you - that they become a hazard to other drivers.
You know you've seen it happen. Maybe you're guilty of it yourself. Even when no accident takes place, what makes up for the fact that as a distracted driver, you put yourself and other people at risk?
Do it enough times, and the law of averages starts to work against you. And the rest of us.
Equality Under the Law - This Does It, Right?
For better or worse, as a society, we bring laws upon ourselves to combat actions - or inaction - that sufficient numbers of our fellow citizens have proven as detrimental to our overall safety.
So don't blame the government for saying we need laws preventing cell phone use while driving. Blame your fellow Americans for botching years of opportunity in which they could have proven such a law isn't necessary.
And if you're pro-life, like I am, what's the difference between legally recognizing behaviors that can imperil life either inside or outside the womb, behaviors about which too many people maintain a dangerous ambivalence?
Besides, for all of the businesspeople who have begun squawking that a cell phone ban would cripple their ability to conduct commerce: take heart. Since the law would apply to everybody, it would mean that your competition wouldn't be able to make calls behind the wheel, either.
You can still pull into a parking lot to make an important telephone call or check messages.
Just like my fellow choir members did.
And if all that just sounds too old-fashioned for you, then think of it this way: if America's drivers had proven we still can incorporate old-fashioned logic and common sense when it comes to safety, cell phones, and driving, we wouldn't be needing another law to protect us.