Driving While Talking - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Driving While Talking

In the “no kidding?” hall of fame, a special place has been reserved for the just-released Transportation Research Board study that found cell phones (wait for it, now…) addle drivers. “The distracted driver tends to drive slower and have delayed reactions,” said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, who coauthored this puppy.

It’s just incredible that we need a National Academy of Sciences-funded research project to belabor what ought to be obvious to anyone who’s been out on the roads recently, and who has a smidgen of observational power and a dollop of common sense.

How many times have you witnessed the following?

* You’re waiting for a red light to change. When it finally does, there’s a lag time of several seconds before the car ahead of you begins to move. The driver is engaged in a cell phone tete-a-tete and didn’t notice the light had changed… because he/she wasn’t paying attention to the light. Sometimes, because of the delay, the light changes just as you reach it. The cell phone-distracted dawdler makes it through, though.

* You’re driving along with another car beside you. It suddenly begins to drift into your lane — almost hitting you before its driver notices you’re in the path of his SUV. (OK, it’s not always an SUV…but still.) He was too busy talking to check his mirrors.

* You’re on the highway in the supposedly “fast” far left lane, but there’s a car ahead doing just exactly the speed limit or a few MPH under it, oblivious to the dozen other cars stacking up behind. He (or she) is preoccupied by Urgent Business, which is probably nothing more “urgent” than babbling with a friend about last night’s game.

The study bears all this out and then some. It found that cell phone jabbering drivers tend to drive significantly below the pace of traffic, adding about 20 hours a year to the commute times of those not on the phone stuck behind the rolling roadblock.

The study also discovered that drivers on the phone exercise less initiative in reacting to changing road and traffic conditions, thus adding to the sclerosis that’s rapidly bringing driving in and around major suburban areas to a miserable crawl.

According to the Associated Press, “Overall, cellphone drivers took about 3 percent longer to drive the same highly traffic-clogged route — and about 2 percent longer to drive a medium-congested route — than people who were not on the phone.”

Wonderful, eh?

STRAYER SAYS THAT the gabblings of the cell phone drivers out there are increasing commute times by 5-10 percent, with that figure apt to rise as more people gabble for longer on their chirping, video-enabled, e-mail capable iPhones, and similar souped-up cells.

Previous studies of driver performance have found a marked reduction in capacity — specifically, ability to notice and respond to changing conditions quickly — when the driver is trying to talk on the phone and drive at the same time.

It’s no small thing, either. The reduction in capability is comparable to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 — the legal threshold defining drunk driving in every state.

And yet, while we rightly go after drunk drivers with the everything the legal system can bring to bear, virtually nothing is said or done about people who, like drunks, choose to engage in an activity that is a demonstrable threat to the safety of other motorists. It’s also a massive annoyance for those of us not addled by cell phones, who are actually driving when we’re behind the wheel of our vehicles.

Why is this?

Drinking alcohol has become politically incorrect; not too far removed from pederasty in the hierarchy of evil. We’ve adopted a virtual zero-tolerance attitude toward any drinking before driving, which may or may not be a bit over the top.

But if it isn’t an overreaction, then how come we tolerate people smacking away on their cells when it’s beyond dispute that talking while driving is at least within the same ballpark, risk-wise, as having a glass or two of wine over dinner and then driving home?

Answer? Cell phones have become a mass “given” of our Electronic Age. An entitlement. A necessary accessory. Everyone — from pre-teens to senile citizens — not only seems to have one but feels the need to be constantly talking on the things. Even when there is nothing especially important that we need to discuss right this very second.

Many of us now spend so much time in our cars that it’s simply unthinkable to waste the time when we could be multi-tasking. Doing deals, contacting business associates. Or just warbling away with a friend over a topic of absolutely no importance whatever. Because we can.

ALL OF WHICH goes to prove that “safety” is, at best, an arbitrary Decider (to use an infelicitous neologism) of what is and isn’t permissible behind the wheel. Twenty years ago, driving drunk was considered funny. (Doubt that? Go and rent the original Cannonball Run.) Today, it’s just about the worst possible sin one can commit behind the wheel.

Maybe in another 20 years, we’ll have come around on talking while driving, too.

Might take some more study, though…

Eric Peters
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