Look Up! Now!

November 11, 2011

The blog ARLnow posted a video Tuesday of a cyclist tooling down the Custis Trail in Arlington while playing with the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots in his basket. My first thought: “Awesome.” My second: “That’s probably a good way to hurt something other than a retro plastic toy.” Many of the commenters took an even harsher view, especially considering how common it is even for attentive bike riders to get into accidents.

We can all probably agree that distracted driving is bad. But what about distracted not-driving? The video was shot from a bike on a trail with no sign of other people around. But you don’t have to be behind the wheel of a car to do damage if you’re not paying attention during your commute. You don’t even need to be in traffic. My friend Aimee is convinced that a Metro rider engrossed in a cell phone game is bound to step off the edge of a station platform any day now.

What worries me more is that the rider could be me (if you substitute reading “A Clash of Kings” on my iPad for playing Angry Birds). Once I mocked the masses of people with ear buds in and eyes fixed on tiny screens, completely disconnected from the world around them. I could entertain myself on a trip by merely taking in the sights around me and thinking through things in my head. Now that sounds unfathomably boring. (No offense, thoughts.)

Attention spans have shrunk to the point that we require constant stimulation. So trying to focus entirely on the task at hand — getting to a destination safely — is becoming more of a challenge. If it’s tough to convince folks in massive steel vehicles to put down their phones (and makeup and whatever else), it’s nearly impossible to make other commuters change their ways. After all, one of the selling points of not driving a car is that you’re allowed to be distracted.

I have yet to hear any stats about the public hazards of wandering around oblivious, and I’d guess that the biggest consequence of this change is an increase in tripping, which doesn’t seem so dire. But how are you supposed to “see something, say something,” if you’re staring at text messages? Last year, a man who died from natural causes while riding Metro stayed on the train for nearly five hours before anyone noticed. Got to figure that someone taking a good look around would have realized that something wasn’t right.

There’s a time for fiddling with your phone — and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. But it’s not all the time. Besides, your thoughts probably miss you.

More Poetry in Motion

Do you remember Adam Possner, the physician/poet who pens creations during his commute that are often inspired by the scenes around him? He’s come up with another one, based on the standard Metro recordings:

Metro Subliminal Message

When the customers step close,

     to allow step-to-step,

     to allow back-to-back

the doors —

     doors back,

     doors center,

     of exit

the car —

     opening, closing,

     boarding

move to please.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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Jennifer Barger | November 11, 2011