Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cell Phones, Cars, and Guns

Various states have banned drivers from using cell phones. Other states are contemplating similar laws. Proponents of a ban argue that cell phone use in the car is distracting and causes accidents. Opponents ask, what's next? Listening to music, eating, conversing with your passengers? Some people suggest a compromise: it's dialing that's distracting, so let's permit drivers to use their cell phones only if they are wearing a headset or speaker phone.

I find public cell phone shouting so widespread and deplorable that I'm tempted to suggest permitting cell phone use only when driving, and with the windows rolled up. But I digress...

I don't think there's any reasonable debate that punching numbers into a tiny keyboard while trying to operate a motor vehicle will cause more accidents. Let's accept for the moment that it does. The more interesting question, I think, is whether talking on a cell phone, even with a headset, ear piece, or speakerphone, is sufficiently distracting to cause more accidents.

There's something about using a cell phone that suppresses people's awareness of their environments. Not all users, but certainly a significant percentage. How else to explain cell phone shouting? A diner sits in a restaurant, murmuring to his dinner companion in a tone carefully modulated to match the surrounding ambiance, and the moment the cell phone rings and is brought to his ear, he's shouting as though oblivious to the presence of anyone else in the room -- as indeed, he suddenly is.

A global experiment has been conducted, and the results are in: cell phone use dissociates the user from awareness of her environment. I don't know what could be more obvious, or less controversial. And if there were a drug that dissociated the user from awareness of her environment, surely we would ban its use during the operation of motor vehicles and heavy equipment.

But here's where we come to the heart of the matter. No doubt, cell phone use in the car will cause more accidents. Equally doubtless, it is enjoyable and economically productive. The first has to be balanced against the second. I don't have any data, but let's start with an extreme example to illustrate the point: if cell phone use caused ten additional road deaths per year but added $10 billion to GNP, would opponents still want to ban it?

Maybe. It's an uncomfortable thing, assigning a dollar value to human life.

I'm in Texas now. In many stretches along Interstate 10 from El Paso to San Antonio, the speed limit is 80 miles per hour. If you've taken this drive, you'll know that 80 mph can seem agonizingly slow. I'm told there's a proposal in Texas to boost the speed limit to 85 mph. Opponents argue this would increase the number of accidents and deaths. I'm certain that it would. I'm equally certain that lowering the speed limit to 45 mph would save lives. Why aren't opponents of the faster speed limit agitating for a still slower one?

Because, like all of us, they don't like to admit that in crafting laws we must always be mindful at some level of the dollar value of a human life.

All reasonable people care about human life. All reasonable people care about the economy. Where we draw the balance is what separates us. But acknowledging the existence of that balancing act might bring us together.

Before someone tells me that every human life is sacred and can never be measured in dollar terms, let's do a quick thought experiment. To use my previous, extreme example: if each life lost to highway cell phone use added one billion dollars to the GNP, how many lives might then be saved with that additional money?

One more thought about cell phones:

It's clear that use of a cell phone induces behaviors that otherwise would not be expressed. Absent a bad row, people don't spontaneously begin shouting in restaurants and other public places. The cell phone might not be the cause of the rude behavior as such, but it is certainly the behavior's catalyst.

Now let's think about firearms. What's that saying? "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Let's try putting it another way: "Cell phones don't cause public shouting, people cause public shouting."

I own firearms and enjoy using them. My views on the subject are complex. But watching (and being forced to listen) to people using their cell phones, I can't deny that there are tools the use of which dramatically alter the behavior of the user. In other words, certain tools cause people to do things they otherwise wouldn't do. We therefore ought to be open to the possibility that the ability to simply pull a trigger might induce behaviors that a knife or stick or garrote would not. That wouldn't be the end of the conversation, only its beginning. Still, I'd like to think it's worth talking about.

Hopefully without any shouting.


Richard Cooper said...

Cell phones are banned (unless using a "hands-free" device) in Santa Fe, and it is probably the most ignored law in history. The fine is $100, but is rarely enforced--unless some silly dissociating driver/talker doesn't notice the well-marked police car which has pulled up next to them at a red light.

And it's very strange, indeed, when people will begin shouting private information in public places… credit card numbers, medical details, lovers' spats, et cetera, ad nauseum.

I. Michael Koontz said...

Ah, here's something I can weigh in on. Numerous studies have shown that there are three main causes of fatal traffic accidents:
1.) Drunk driving
2.) Driving by the sleep-deprived
3.) Driving while distracted

It's thought that #2 may actually EXCEED number #1, though it would be admittedly hard to catch and prosecute the offense of sleep-deprived driving. Still, the trucking industry is becoming increasinsly regulated and concerned in this regard, as are private citizens.

Driving while distracted is somewhat of a new phenomenon. Cell phones, in-car DVD's, long commutes where people put on their make-up, read the newspaper (!), look at their satellite radio panels and GPS systems--really, it's a relatively new phenomenon.

And deadly. The crux is this: what is regulate-able and what isn't? We can check for drunk drivers, make laws against driving commercial trucks without sleep, make laws against cell phone usage, but there's no law that can regulate common sense, I'm afraid. Some people will always read books and newspapers in traffic, I'm afraid.

Economically, I sincerely doubt the economic benefit of in-car cell phone usage outweighs the lives and property lost through accidents. Common cell phone usage is only about ten years old, yet our economy did just fine before it--it's not like cell phones in cars have likely accelerated our GNP.

When you weigh the benefits and risks of certain behaviors on a population level, matters become complicated.

Cars kill thousands, but our society is dependent on cars to function. Cigarettes kill thousands, but do we really need them to function? Would society miss them? I doubt it. Guns have a purpose aside from illegally killing other humans, but is it a good idea to allow relatively easy access to them as we traditionally have? Personally, I think we take gun ownership way too lightly, with tragic deaths from firearms--usually one family member against another, or from suicide--being all too common.

But when it comes to cell phones, there's not much scientific debate: they belong in cars about as much as a full tumbler of Jack Daniels (or Caol Ila for you, Barry), a handful of sleeping pills, or a television set on the front dash.

Life was so much simpler when you were either home to take a phone call or out and you missed it. And yet we all still somehow got by....

David Terrenoire said...

Bary says:
"...I find public cell phone shouting so widespread and deplorable that I'm tempted to suggest permitting cell phone use only when driving, and with the windows rolled up."

I would add only: in a garage, with the motor on and the garage door closed.

David Terrenoire said...

I live in Durham, NC, considered by the cowering masses in surrounding cities as the Newark of the South. One of these plasticene cities is a wretched circle of blandness called Cary, a blight of beige shopping malls and Reich-like homeowners' associations.

In Durham we have this natural law:
Strike 1 - Driving a Land Rover.
Strike 2 - Driving a Land Rover from LandRover of Cary
Strike 3 - Talking on a cell phone while driving the Land Rover from Land Rover of Cary.

If all three criteria are met, we in Durham are legally required to shoot that driver.

It's the law.

dkgoodman said...

What about doing makeup while driving? Or reading a map?

It's funny how it irritates us so much more when someone uses a cellphone, even if the offense is similar to ones not involving a cellphone. It's as if the cellphone is a catalyst for curmudgeons.

So why legislate against the distraction of cellphones specifically, when there are other distractions as bad or worse?

Some drivers seem particularly prone to bad driving while using a cellphone, but that doesn't mean that all drivers suffer that affliction. Just because some proportion of the population can't walk and chew gum at the same time, why penalize all drivers who use cellphones to catch the few bad apples who can't multitask?

It seems that we no longer use laws to punish bad behavior, we use laws to prohibit behavior that may not be bad in a particular instance. "Guns can be used for illegal acts, so we're going to prohibit all gun use."

I would much rather see laws that only penalize cellphone-using drivers who actually break the law or get in an accident. Triple the fine if a cellphone was in use during an accident. That way, the bad apples are penalized, but I can still safely call my wife to say I'm running late without being treated like a criminal.

Anonymous said...

I am guessing Barry's recently had a few ring tones bleeped at him during book signings!! Which out right should be banned during a Barry appearance!!

Anonymous said...

It fascinates me to sit in some fancy-schmancy restaurant and watch a couple, clearly on a date, about to spend hundreds of dollars on dinner, each on their cell phone to someone else. I hear them discussing what to order (!), what they're gonna do tomorrow, and on and on. They'd be better off at McDonalds.

I like Mr. Koontz's and Mr. Goodman's points. It's really tough to legislate common sense or good manners, and the idea of increasing the penalty for accidents caused by distractions such as cell phone usage or reading the paper appeals to me.

I’m interested by the statistics LDF quoted, but it seems to me that some of the categories could be combined into one that I think of as “drivers fiddling around when they should be paying attention”. So you could add up adjusting the radio / CD, cell phone usage, and eating / drinking, and get to 16 percent. You could probably throw in adjusting vehicle controls and get to 20 percent, but I’m little leery of that statistic – how do you drive without adjusting the vehicle controls? It looks like the study was published in 2003; if the statistics were collected from 2001/2002 data, I wonder if there are more recent data that might produce different results. I fossicked around for awhile, but couldn't find anything more recent than the Virginia DMV study (quoted by LDF) that goes into any kind of detail.

I. Michael Koontz said...

Using the logic that you 'only punish those misusing an item; you don't outlaw it," then I suppose we should remove restrictions from all prescription pain-killers, the age-limits from alcohol and cigarettes, speed limits on highways, etc. etc. etc.

Right. There's an element of common sense here that needs to be used, too. Just as someone should not say "Well, SOME people are bad drunk drivers but I"M a good drunk driver!" we can't really test everyone to see if it's okay to watch a DVD and drive, or chat on the cell and drive, or fiddle and nauseum with a CD and drive. So you have to take the other tack: PREVENTION. Just like some felons and mentally unstable people might be great gun owners, one might also wonder whether there are more that wouldn't. So you regulate for the whole bunch of them--that's how a society works.

Again, all of those highway deaths come down to three basic categories:

1. Drivers occupied with something other than driving.
2. Sleepy drivers
3. Drunk drivers.

Driver inexperience is also a factor, but personally I think #1 applies in most of those cases (a local girl killed while changing a CD; a friend's mother killed when hit by a car whose driver apparently fell asleep).

You do what you can to prevent accidents if the societal cost is low. And personally, I don't think there's a compelling need for everyone to endlessly fiddle with their radios, watch DVD's, stare at accidents, drink and drive, talk on cell phones, stare at GPS maps, etc.

Still, I am forced to admit that in my 'day-job' as a physician, I must occasionally talk to the hospital on the phone while I drive (which I do as carefully as possible, I might add). If declared illegal in my state, however, I will start pulling over.

dkgoodman said...

I have friends, nurses and doctors, who have to deal with the consequences of irresponsible actions. The urge to prevent these tragedies is understandable and laudable. But I'm a Darwinist.

If you burglarize a school, fall through the skylight and kill yourself, don't come crying to me. ;)

On the other hand, the collateral damage from people who drink and drive is deplorable. I'm in favor of drunk driving laws, but I think there should be a limit to our attempt to legislate all danger from the world.

It's illegal to drink and drive. It's been proposed (and in some places passed) that it be illegal to cellphone and drive. Is that to be followed by other laws regulating what you can do while driving? And if so, how are we as citizens expected to learn all of the new laws introduced by this explosion of safety through legislation?

I know that it's possible for children and animals to drown in a bucket of water, but I still don't think a law need be passed requiring all buckets to leak.

I'm not going to live forever, and I don't want the years that I do have to seem as if it was taking forever. I want to enjoy life, even if my hiking and biking and other activities incur risk. It's part of the game.

But that's just me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

On guns, think about the psychological assessments regarding the type of killer who uses a knife, who covers a face, who strangles someone with their bare hands...

Guns empower the cowardly, who like to kill from a distance. Not just the cowardly, but those who don't like to get their hands physically dirty. Well, GSR is one thing, but you can wear gloves.

Holding and firing a gun is a power trip, especially if you're pointing it at someone you have a reason to hurt.

But banning guns? I'm not in that camp.

I mean, cars can be lethal weapons too. Some people have intentionally used them that way, as well.

Almost anything, in the wrong hands, can be a weapon. Blaming the gun is, in my mind, the equivalent of suing McDonalds because you're fat. Unless you can prove fast food chains are using addictive substances in their food to keep you hooked, it's this simple: you're responsible for what you eat.

Where's this going? To one of my biggest pet peeves about society today. Nobody takes responsibility for their actions anymore. Kill someone? Blame the gun. ("I didn't know it was loaded." "It just went off." All on it's own. Right. It's a wonder more people aren't dead from weapons that spontaneously fire.)

Okay, are some people dead who wouldn't be if there weren't guns? Absolutely. But the point is, we have a tendency to walk through mine fields in the desert and worry about lack of sunscreen. We slap bandages on the problems in society. Ban guns. It'll solve all our problems.

No, it won't. The UK has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, but that hasn't stopped people from being robbed at gunpoint. or killed

In my opinion, we have to look past the guns, to what's prompting the use of them in a dangerous manner. I bet a hefty percentage of gun crimes in some cities is tied to drug use or gang activity. Banning guns isn't going to keep them out of the hands of criminals - it only keeps them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. The solution is in figuring out who's abusing the guns and then start to deal with the root of the problem.

This has been a big topic up here ever since a girl was shot and killed on Boxing Day, just the wrong place, wrong time. Of course tougher gun laws would solve the problem, and the anti-gun people have been galvinized by the tragic death. But she wasn't shot by some law-abiding citizen who forgot the safety wasn't on. She was shot by a gang member, caught in the crossfire.

Forget the guns. Deal with the gangs.

Easier said that done, though. So we must look like we're doing something, and the easy route to making everyone breathe easier is to ban the guns.

Until the next kid gets killed in a random shooting.

And then I'd like to see the anti-gun people explain why their tough laws didn't save that life.

Oh, and I don't own any guns, either. Not like a personal policy or anything, but my brother-in-law used one on himself, and while my husband is a damn good (military trained) shot, we've never felt the need to own our own weapons. I think it would bother his mom, too. He still taught me how to shoot, though.

I'm just not crazy about these people who blame objects for the choices humans make.

Cell phones. What can you do? You must have enjoyed that video with the guys on the bus, the one man yelling at the other one for talking on his cell phone...

JD Rhoades said...

It's funny how it irritates us so much more when someone uses a cellphone, even if the offense is similar to ones not involving a cellphone. It's as if the cellphone is a catalyst for curmudgeons.

I've noticed this, too. I've been sitting with people who've gone into near apoplexy when they saw someone using a cell phone in a restuarant, even when the cell phone user was alone, wasn't shouting, and couldn't be heard fomr our table.
"That's so rude!"
"Why? I can't even hear him. He's not bothering me."
"I just hate cell phones!"


However, Barry, considering some of the conversations I HAVE overheard, I'd wonder exactly how much "economic benefit" is actually being derived from the use of the cell phone. In fact, I think you could make a case that a lot of cell phone use, even ostensibly for business, is economically UNproductive. Thanks to cell phones, bosses can interrupt subordinates, subordinates can call bosses for advice on stuff they really ought to be able to handle themselves, and lord knows, clients and customers can stop your work dead because they've just got to speed dial you whenever a thought pops into their heads. And that's not even counting spouses calling to assign errands, kids calling to bitch about sibling disputes, friends calling in the middle of staff meetings to cry on the receptionist's shoulder over something mean their boyfriend said last night, etc etc. (I've personally seen all of these happen) More communication is not necessarily a good thing.
But, of course, we'll never know how much cell phone use greases the wheels and how much is just sand in the gears. There's really no way to measure that. So I think we have to fall back on the question of how many accidents are really caused by cell phone use. And the answer seems to be...not as many as you think.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

This is a timely subject for my part of the state, considering an article in Sunday's paper. In New York, it's against the law to drive and talk on a cell phone.

There have been 47 major vehicle accidents so far this year. 9 of them fatalities. 23 of the accidents were attributed to cell phone use and 3 of the fatalities were attributed to cell phones.

Personally I hate them. I was in line at a store last week, the woman in front of me, was on the phone, giving her Visa creditcard number to one of her children who was appparently at a store in the mall.

LOL...I've got almost total recall. When she got off the phone, I told her she shouldn't be having that kind of cell phone conversation in public.

She gave me a vulgar reply. I, in turn repeated her creditcard number to her...LOL!

She who laughs last, laughs best!

Anonymous said...

Nuke all cell phone users ... just kidding.

I'm all for ethical suicide parlors (i.e., Vonnegut's, Harrison Bergeron) so long as jumpers don't land on anybody, shooters don't miss and hit somebody else and, I guess, cell phone users crash into inanimate objects.

I own one but the battery is dead and it has sat on my desk here at home now for months (just below my "Fragile manhood at work" sign). My wife insists I keep the thing (the cell phone), but to what purpose, I really don't know.

PBI said...


Your point about the effect various tools may have on their users is insightful. It's one I think I've held somewhat instinctively - certainly with regard to weapons - but had not applied to mobile phones.

I believe the biggest issue with regard to driver safety is not, however, traceable to non-driving activities themselves. Cell phone use, make-up application, radio tuning, etc. are all – in my view, anyway – symptoms of a poor appreciation for what is involved in good driving, rather than root causes. They may be the proverbial camel-killing straws, but underlying their roles is something more pervasive.

In my experience, the same people who apply make-up or talk on the phone while driving are also the ones most likely to fail to use directionals, tail gate, etc., even when they aren’t doing anything BUT driving. Even most decent drivers, it seems to me, often don’t have an appreciation for what goes into being a truly good driver. Automatic transmissions for one, I think have caused people to significantly curtail the amount by which they anticipate potential events in the road, something which drivers with manual transmissions must, by necessity do. (When you have an automatic, you’re not driving so much a as “steering,” and there is a difference.) On top of that, driver’s education in this country is a joke, overall.

As far as the relationship between speed and mortality, it’s worth noting that Germany – home of the unlimited speed Autobahn – has a lower auto fatality rate than the U.S. In Germany, there are about 9 fatalities for every 100,000 accidents, while in the United States, the rate is closer to 15 for every 100,000. In other words, you are about 67% more likely to die if you crash in the U.S. than in Germany. The root cause? Seatbelt usage looks to be culprit, as usage in Germany is over 90% while in the U.S. it hovers around an historic high(!) of only 75%. Again, I think it comes back to driver education and understanding the potential consequences of piloting a ton - or several tons - or machinery at high speed.

I believe the underlying premise of the importance of education holds, too, with weapons. Responsible gun owners for instance, are not likely to wave around a loaded firearm “as a joke;” neither are educated and well-trained drivers likely to do much chatting on cell phones while behind the wheel.

By the way, I was just in Dallas myself over Memorial Day, and it is no surprise to me that you’ve chosen to write this post from the Lone Star State. Texans seems to exhibit a particular brand of aggressive ignorance on the roads that is unique. (Having lived in several parts of the country, it is interesting to see the particular “spin” each region’s poor drivers put on things!)

Anonymous said...

My favorite thing to watch is someone trying to back a mini-van out of a tight parking space with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the long as they aren't anywhere near me. What I wonder is, what's so important that it can't wait a few minutes, or even better, why if the call was so important the driver didn't call before starting the van? Perhaps it is just me...I learned to drive later in life and still believe turn signals are the easiest things in the world to flick on and off. Of course,living in a university town, the cellphone as a traffic danger runs a close second to our foreign students, some of whom seem to think turning left from the right hand lane is perfectly ok...and that if a road has two lanes it MUST be a two-way street. However,
having worked retail, my biggest pet peeve is people who come up to the register chattering away on their cells, throw money on the counter, and refuse to listen to the cashier without acting as though he or she is invading their privacy. Emily Post is rolling in her grave! :o)

JA Konrath said...

Whenever a new skyscraper is announced, the number of deaths that will occur while constructing it are taken into account. And people will indeed die during construction. They always do.

A decent arguement could be made for not building anything taller than sixty floors, because it always costs lives.

But here's the thing about human nature; no one thinks that they'll be the one to die. So the workers keep working, and the skyscrapers get built. Even when there is a 100% guarantee of fatalities.

This applies to cars and guns as well.

The government spends a lot of time and money making laws to protect people from themselves. People don't like these laws, because they don't believe anything bad will happen to them.

I can talk on the phone while driving. I can carry concealed. I can go 110 miles per hour. I can smoke weed. Maybe it is unsafe for other people, but not for me.

Here's an experiment. For a day, ask everyone you encounter if they are a better than average driver. I've tried this, and the majority of people truly believe they are better than average. Obviously, this is impossible.

My question is, when a government begins to parent its people by making them buckle up, refusing to let them injest certain chemicals, and not allowing them to carry a knife over four fingers in length, it knows full well that many people won't listen.

Skyscrapers will get built, and people will smoke pot, no matter the risk.

So do these laws actually protect people from themselves? And if so, is that something we really want?

dkgoodman said...

I fear that if brake lights didn't come on automagically when you used your brakes, nobody would bother to put on their brake lights to warn the car behind them.

What I think we need for turn signals is to have the car chide you every time you make a turn without having signalled in advance. Then, when you get better, a Hershey's Kiss pops out of the dashboard along with a sarcastic, "Good boy!" :)

Anonymous said...

Hear Hear!

- Anthony

JD Rhoades said...

What I wonder is, what's so important that it can't wait a few minutes, or even better, why if the call was so important the driver didn't call before starting the van?

You never know. I once got highly annoyed at a woman taking a call on her cell phone in line at Backyard Burgers...until it became obvious from the conversation that the person on the other end was her husband calling from Iraq, she hadn't heard from him in two weeks, and this was his only chance at the phone.
It probably helped my opinion of her that she had the good grace to get out of line to talk. That, and the fact that she was weeping with joy.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks everyone for the interesting, insightful responses. I wish I had time to respond to more, but I gotta run from OKC to Kansas City and have a bunch of bookstores to hit (and a laudromat I need to find...).

JD, you just keyed on something I find fascinating: the human tendency to not give others the benefit of the doubt. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we always assume it's because he's an asshole or was dissing us, not because his wife is in the backseat about to give birth and he's rushing to hospital...

George Carlin says, with profound insight, "Have you ever noticed that everyone who drives too fast is a maniac, and everyone who drives too slowly is a moron, while you always drive at the correct speed?"

Probably there's a built-in survival mechanism for tending to assume the worst... it might prevent people from taking advantage of us. But it's definitely there.

JD Rhoades said...

JD, you just keyed on something I find fascinating: the human tendency to not give others the benefit of the doubt. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we always assume it's because he's an asshole or was dissing us, not because his wife is in the backseat about to give birth and he's rushing to hospital...

Maybe I've just been nutted by reality (to quote Nick Lowe) too many times.

Anonymous said...

Hi jd,
That fortunate woman is definitely the exception to the rule...I was talking about those drivers who pull out their phones and make a call, not receive one :o) I've also been cut off by someone on the Interstate who was so busy on the phone he almost missed his exit and crossed three lanes of traffic without blinking an eye. Maybe I'd feel better if drivers chose handsfree headsets, but I'm a realist. If they weren't on the phone, they might be reading! (And I know someone who does just that!)

Anonymous said...


I've put 2 and 2 together to get 3.

These days, almost everyone has a cellphone and carries them prominently displayed on their hip (et al). The use of these 'devices' can, and often is, rude and dangerous.

now then hypothetically, if people wore pistols in the same manner, they could potentially be even MORE rude and dangerous.

now if they did both. the rude behavior associated with 'device' #1 could cause their own demise via 'device' #2.

Those surviving might very well learn to be aware of their environmment in order to avoid #3

Anonymous said...

Yet another instance of improper Cell phone use....

A 60+ YR old woman (so not an imoportant multi million $$ business call) getting a phone call during a Catholic Mass Church Service (Saturday evening- thus also not an impt business call) at the time of the sermon/homily when all is quiet except for the priest talking..... AND ANSWERING IT-- proceeding to talk so that half the church could hear her for several minutes!!!

And it wasn't a life or death or important call (husband in surgery, daughter giving birth...) . And I don't think she was at all embarassed by it. Needless to say, I was appalled at the gaul of the woman and the lack of respect for all around her!