Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Driving a Texting Driver Ban Misses Point

Ought there to be a law against it?

Last month, the Texas state House of Representatives passed a bill outlawing texting-while-driving (TWD).  The Lone Star State is one of only four remaining that don't specifically criminalize TWD, although distracted driving, a broader description of the activity in question, is already against the law.  As it currently stands, House Bill 62 makes using a phone while driving a misdemeanor offense, but questions remain regarding how such a measure could be fairly enforced in the real world.  Questions also remain regarding how eager the Texas Senate is to ratify the bill, since the House has already given them a similar opportunity three other times in previous sessions, to no avail.

Will this year be different for Texas?

The idea enjoys bipartisan support among politicians, because it's hard to ignore the dangers of cell phone use by drivers of a moving vehicle - even though many drivers engage in the activity multiple times every day.  Probably every time they get behind the wheel.  Cell phones have practically become an appendage for some users, and serious studies have found that addiction to cell phones is a real problem for many people.  The luxury of instant communication is no longer a luxury for those folks, but a necessity.  Or, so they think.

Usually, politically conservative legislators - especially in a conservative state like Texas - abhor laws designed to control behavior, especially "nanny state" laws that seem to pick on common activities and appear to interfere with an individual's right to self-determination.  Yet when it comes to TWD, a number of key Republican Texans support the notion that a law is necessary to try and curb rampant - and dangerous - cell phone use by drivers.

"Boy howdy - thar aughta be a law, dadgum it!"

Why a law?  Because not enough people voluntarily refrain from the practice.  And since so many people do it, it's hard to convince drivers to use the honor system and not use their phones while driving, as an altruistic gesture acknowledging public safety.  The broader well-being of our society can seem so ambiguous and existential when faced with the opportunity to call a client from your car, or check to see if your kids are home from school, or what your spousal unit wants for dinner.  Perhaps with a law - a law everybody is supposed to respect, of course - drivers will be encouraged to forgo the personal convenience of TWD, since nobody else is doing it either.

Um, yeah... like that will ever be reality, right?  Hey, business is all about exploiting opportunities, right?  If you view your time behind the wheel as lost productivity, then you're going to call that client, or track down that lost shipment, while cruising around town.  It's what good employees do, right?  If you're a responsible parent, you're going to check up on your kids on your way home from work, and if you're responsible for dinner tonight, you're gonna need to know what your loved ones would like to eat (after all, you shouldn't send and receive personal e-mails at work, right?).

The reasons people use their cell phones while they drive aren't bad... usually, at least.  But it seems that many people who decide to TWD forget that their primary purpose as a driver is to actually drive, and drive in as safe a manner as possible.

It's easy to spot the drivers who are texting - and even the ones so engrossed in an old-fashioned telephone conversation.  The several-thousand-ton contraption they're piloting down the roadway begins to weave within its lane, and then a little bit outside of its lane.  Their speed becomes erratic, often slowing down drastically, at least in terms of the pace of other vehicles around it.  In fairly close traffic, a phoner can quickly create a mini traffic jam, as other vehicles get trapped behind it, waiting their chance to dart around the slower vehicle. 

Sit at any traffic light, and watch to see how long it takes between the light turning green and the first car in line to move from its stopped position.  How many times have you been at a stoplight, only to have to wait through most of the green light for the driver in front of you to look up from their phone and realize that they've got the green light?  Some of us honk if we have to wait at a green light while a phoner uses up our patience, and then we get shot their middle finger when they decide to take advantage of the green light, like it's our fault that we might miss it.

Actually, it's amazing that so many important people are out on the roads, isn't it?  So many important people driving (without a chauffeur, like important people used to employ) and having to use their phones, meaning they don't have a personal assistant to follow up on all these important issues. 

Now, for the record, I rarely use my cell phone while I'm driving.  And by rarely, I mean usually only to call 911 if there is debris in the roadway (it's amazing how much junk litters our freeways in Dallas, falling off all the pickup trucks people own here).  I never answer my phone while driving.  And I think I've sent about five total texts when behind the wheel of my car - but those were only when I was parked, usually with the engine off, before I embarked on whatever journey I was about to take.

Yet my point isn't that the texting itself is the problem.  You see, using one's cell phone while driving can be a fairly safe practice, if there's hardly any traffic, or if your conversation consists of a couple of short sentences, or if you're not speeding.   And as far as TWD is concerned, we don't really need a law specifically banning it, because as I said, we already have laws against inattentive driving.

So what is the problem? The problem is our society's propensity for selfishness.  We each tend to view ourselves as being more important than others.  We don't say that out loud (usually) but we demonstrate that mentality through our actions; through what we do, and what we don't do.

Selfishness is a pernicious form of individualism that is exacerbated by our exploitation of the private automobile.  If you think about it, automobiles have become our own autonomous, insular pods, haven't they?  Our cars are cocoons of transportation, but also of entertainment, privacy, and isolation.  We turn our elaborate speaker systems up so loud, we can't hear the emergency vehicle's siren screaming and squawking at us from our rear bumper.  Even if our cell phone is turned off, if we have passengers in our pod, we get so engrossed in conversation that we have no idea what's going on outside of our glass-and-aluminum transportation device.  A device that's hurtling through space at 60mph - or more.

Witness that kid who was caught on camera, his testosterone-fueled dually pickup truck wandering about a wide Texas roadway, even traveling well within the lane of opposing traffic.  If recognizing such a dangerous scenario wasn't enough to convince that young stud that he was completely disconnected from his driving task, it would take the slaughter of 13 innocent senior citizens to prove it.

By then, saying "I'm sorry" fixes nothing.

That tragedy last week in the hills of central Texas may provide the impetus for the state's Senate to pass anti-texting legislation this time around, since public opinion is so aghast at the stunning loss of life.  Politicians hate passing up opportunities to look like they're actually fixing something.  But even if this bill passes, how many Texas drivers actually plan on abiding by it?  After all, stuff like that happens to other people, not to us.  This phone call I need to make is really important, and the risk it poses to somebody else who I've never met is really insignificant - at least to me.

And sure, maybe it is a risk you're willing to live with.

But can the rest of us?

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