I should start by admitting: I am a terrible driver.
I am the sort of driver who remembers to cover the brake at railroad crossings and nothing else. I don't even brake driving into intersections. I sort of honk and roll down the window and shout, “HEAVENLY POWERS PRESERVE US!” and drive on through, lightly maiming several pedestrians.
I would never dream of using a cellphone while driving. This does not make me safer to drive near. On the contrary. I am always somewhat encouraged by the knowledge that the person next to me is driving while talking on his cellphone. It means he at least thinks he’s good enough to drive while doing something else. It’s the rest of us you need to worry about.
So the idea that the National Transportation Safety Board wants to ban cellphones and electronic devices in cars because talking on them is distracting makes me laugh. Talk? Who uses a cellphone to talk?
Cellphones, broadly speaking, are a device we use to avoid talking to people.
Back when their only function was to call other people, this took real ingenuity. Now it’s a breeze. We text. We update Facebook. We do everything on them but talk. When we want to meet someone for, say, dinner, we don’t call to say we are on the way. No. The point of cellphones is that if you and another person are headed to a given point, they enable you to find each other, all the while postponing until the last possible moment the need to open your mouth and actually form words.
They boast a wide array of games we can insistently play to avoid making connections on the subway. We bring them with us to dates and family dinners and pretend that something very interesting is happening to our knee that is preventing us from making conversation or eye contact. And for everything else, there’s Siri.
Texting — sure, that’s a problem. But it’s already against the law. The other things we use cellphones for in cars seem valid to me — tweeting, getting directions, or just playing Angry Birds — and to ban their use in everything but emergencies seems a bit wacky. Although you could argue that having spent more than an hour without playing Angry Birds, in a way, constitutes an emergency.
So I find the NTSB recommendation that we ban the use of all electronic devices while driving deeply disturbing. I’m not sure it has much point in terms of safety — studies suggest, as my colleague Dana Milbank points out, that it’s more distracting to have an engaged passenger in the back seat, and I don’t see them banning my mother from cars — but, more fundamentally, I am opposed to anything that requires anyone to put down a cellphone for even a yoctosecond. That’s physically impossible. I just implanted mine in my arm.
Distracted driving is a major problem. It can be deadly. But these devices have already done all sorts of insidious harm that no one regulates. They have encouraged us to cultivate the attention spans of cocaine-addled rats. Long-winded old gentleman come to tell me of his time in the wars? Let’s see if there’s a YouTube video I can watch under the table. You can’t die of this, to my knowledge, but it doesn’t do much for your quality of life.
A ban aside, I don’t know how to solve the problem of distracted driving. Public service announcements? If PSAs actually influenced my choices, I would have spent the past six years continuously talking to children about drugs, occasionally pausing to eat a sandwich.
But in the mean time, I just don’t think it’s realistic to ask anyone to put down a cellphone, ever. Recently a friend was updating Facebook from what I think was the delivery room where his son was being born, and if you can do that, you probably don’t stop for a little thing like oncoming traffic. No matter what the NTSB says.