Saturday, July 28, 2001

Shut Up and Drive

While this session of the New York Legislature has been notable for its lack of progress on tough issues such as tax reduction and education reform, it nevertheless made history with one of its edicts. Starting this fall, the state will be the first to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving. No longer will you be able to keep one hand on the wheel and one pressed to your ear, as you thread your way up the Saw Mill Parkway while simultaneously ordering Chinese food, chatting with your golf buddies or checking in with your spouse.

The reasoning behind the law is that people talking on cell phones are distracted from the more essential task of piloting their vehicles on the straight and narrow, and hence more likely to have accidents. Now, even if you're not a research scientist from the National Transportation Safety Board, odds are you have anecdotal evidence that this is the case. We've all been cut off by drivers who are gabbing a mile a minute while not looking where they are going... and I dare say... we each might be guilty of similar offenses ourselves. In most cases, it results in a quick swerve and some expletives being bandied about. But it's a short jump from there to a five-car pileup tying up the Major Degan Expressway for the morning rush.

Speaking for myself, I know that catching up with my mom on the phone while I'd driving home from a late project can certainly draw my attention away from the road. But the question is this: am I more distracted by that then when I am unwrapping a burger from the drive-in window at McDonald's? Or when I'm trying to flip through the liner notes to see who is the keyboard player on the third cut of the last McCartney solo CD? I would venture the view that answer is no... and so along with the phone ban, we should embargo number 2 value meals and the Beatles.

More to the point, as radio commentator Dave Ross points out, the law was enacted not because people jabbering loudly on cell phones are inherently dangerous, but because they are inherently obnoxious. After all, everyone has been accosted by some moron who thinks the world is his or her telephone booth. Regardless of the setting... the train, the line at the grocery store, the table at the local deli... they engage in animated discussions with unseen listeners, assuming that the rest of us will either a) close our ears, b) enjoy the story of their boss' affairs c) don't mind hearing about their itchy rash, or d) all of the above. For these losers, the answer is always "d."

But the ban doesn't actually stop people from using cell phones in the car while driving; it just makes them do it hands free. So they're free to dial (where they have to use one hand on the wheel and look down away from the road), to take notes (where they have to use one hand on the wheel and look down away from the road) and to fiddle with the memory settings and controls on the phone (where they have to... ah, you get the idea). And of course, even with a speaker or an earpiece or a headset, they're still free to get so wrapped up in the conversation that the rest of us have to duck and run when they come into view.

If we're going to make any progress in this arena, we need more action and less talk. Take the situation I was in, coming out of New York City one day at rush hour. As the van I was riding in with 4 others headed up the West Side Highway, we ran into the usual mess near the Holland Tunnel. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, we're talking 4 lanes going north, four going south, along with traffic lights, people turning into and out of the flow, as well as those attempting to cut across the highway to get to the tunnel and New Jersey. Picture the cross currents in the surf during a hurricane, and you get a sense of the less-than-ordered chaos that prevails.

As we edged our way patiently northward through the mess, we finally came to the front of the line at the traffic light that signaled the final barrier. The next cycle would provide our release. But just as it turned green, a Mercedes decided to turn across traffic, obstructing all northbound lanes. The driver was animatedly talking away, but we could see no one else in the car. It was obvious that he was in the middle of a call, paying little or no attention to the situation around him.

We all started yelling at the Mercedes, taking particular aim at the driver's parentage. But two of the gentlemen in my vehicle were Bronx born and bred, and had a different way of dealing with things. Our van door slid open, and they made a beeline for the car in front of us. Without a moment's hesitation, they stepped in front of the Mercedes, and starting pounding on the hood, while offering the admonition to "GET OFF THE F***ING PHONE... AND DRIVE!!!"

Well, the guy in the car got the message. You could read his lips as he hurriedly said, "Ah... Phil... I'll have to call you back... OK?" He reached down and punched the disconnect button, then quickly pulled the Mercedes out of our way. My companions climbed back into the van, slammed the door, and we made it through the light, and continued our ride home... convulsed in laughter the entire way.

While this particular gentleman was adhering to the new letter of the law, he was breaking it in spirit. Thankfully, my companions showed him the error of his ways. Forget the legislation; that's the kind of call we all need to make.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a headset for use in his car, but he still doesn't talk for long. It costs too much. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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