Car Guy

Talk and Drive

But learn to drive first!

By 7.23.09

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The geese have erupted into their usual flapping and screeching over news that studies showing increased use of cell phones while driving has been contributing to an increase in distracted driving -- and accidents.

But as much as I hate cell phones and the constant needless gabbling at all times and in all places they have engendered, they are not the real problem here. Commercial pilots manage to maintain control of an aircraft hurtling through the skies at hundreds of miles an hour while communicating on two-way radios (the equivalent of a cell phone). Commercial truckers manage to maintain control, too, while working their CBs.

And the truth of the matter is that many drivers are perfectly able to handle a phone conversation while handling their cars.

The problem is that many aren't -- but it's not the phones. It's their already marginal driving ability.

Just as some people are less capable behind the wheel when completely sober than a high-skilled driver is even with a few beers in him, so it is that some drivers can handle having a chat while driving while others should not be allowed to put their hand on a steering wheel, period -- whether their other hand is holding a cell phone or not.

We can't discuss this honestly, of course.

Instead, laws have to be constantly dumbed-down to accommodate the least common denominator. Just as "no right on red" laws have popped up all over because of a few subpar drivers who lack the competence to execute the maneuver safely, so also we shall have laws forbidding the use of cell phones while driving.

But, why stop there? Some people cannot manage eating while driving, either -- yet this is a common (and for now, still legal) activity. Should it, too, be cause for a ticket? And if having a conversation while operating a vehicle is the bottom line issue, why not ban that, too? There is no doubt some "drivers" are "distracted" by it -- and many other things, besides.

The possibilities are endless. But the problem won't be solved until we get up the gumption to deal with the underlying rot, which is the declining ability of the average person to do more than turn a key, slide the lever from Park to Drive, hit the cruise control -- and gape vacuously into space.

The licensing system is a farce; if you can't pass the "test" you truly must be a candidate for the Short Bus. Quite literally we will give a license to almost anyone. Virtually no demonstration of actual skill behind the wheel is required. Just answer a few questions having to do with bureaucratic rules (How many feet must you stay behind a school bus? Must your child always be restrained in a child safety seat?) and maybe do a lap around the DMV parking and you are officially anointed a "driver" by the powers that be.

Traffic enforcement is based on revenue collection -- and so focuses on a gantlet of petty violations, most of which have no bearing on whether you are competently driving. Drive 43 mph on a road with a speed limit of 55 and a dozen cars stacked up behind you and no cop will bother you. But pass the slow poke at a speed faster than 55 mph -- even if just for the length of time necessary to execute the pass safely -- and the same cop will hit his blue and reds for sure.

Now we will get another slew of laws empowering the cops to pull us over for using a cell phone while driving -- or just talking, period -- even if our driving is blameless. None of that matters. It won't be a viable defense before the judge. Because some people can't handle doing more than one thing at a time safely, you will not be allowed to do two things at a time, either.

It's why "driving" has become not just oxymoronic but an increasingly unpleasant hassle for those of us who can do it passably well.

It's getting to be not worth the bother. May as well stay home and read a good book -- perhaps about the America that once was.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.