Welcome to the dawning of the age of DWT — the criminalization of “driving while talking.”
For the first time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a formal recommendation calling for states to prohibit the use of cellular phones while driving.
Yes, that’s right. The board even wants to ban mobile phone use while using hands-free devices like earbuds and those fancy cars that let you pick up the phone through the dash using Bluetooth, which are currently viewed as less likely to distract drivers.
The NTSB doesn’t have legal authority to enforce its proposed phone-use ban, but its recommendations are taken seriously by state regulators and legislators.
“There is a large body of evidence showing that talking on a phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, impairs driving and increases your risk of having a crash,” Anne McCartt, SVP for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told The Huffington Post.
Automobile safety experts agree that distracted driving is behind a growing portion of the accident rate, which in general is falling.
Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, co-authored a test of “the performance of drivers not engaged in conversation and drivers who could hear someone talking to them through headphones. Drivers took the simulator tests inside an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine that recorded images of changes in their brains while driving, including which areas of the brain were used for driving. The amount of the brain devoted to driving was 37 percent less in drivers who could hear someone talking to them than for drivers not using cellphones.”
“The human mind can multitask, but each task is performed with less brain power and lower proficiency,” Just explained.
The NTSB says 18 percent of automobile fatalities are caused by distracted driving (including causes other than phones).
Other distractions, such as children and other passengers in the vehicle, are viewed to be relatively neutral from a traffic safety standpoint. You might be distracted by your screaming kids, but one of them might also point out the potential danger that you might otherwise have missed.
Forty percent of Americans told the National Highway Administration they don’t think that hands-free driving is dangerous. But if you’re like me, and you’re honest with yourself, you have to know that you have more close calls when you text or talk on the phone as you drive.
Still, it’s hard to know where to come down on this question of freedom versus safety. Horror novelist Stephen King was nearly killed by a guy distracted by his dog, but it sure would be sad to mandate that dogs be locked in their cages throughout a drive.
What’s certain is that, if a ban on driving while talking becomes law, it will have significant cultural and economic implications.
A Return to Disconnection
In their early days, cellular phones were more of a way for you to call someone else than for you to be reachable. There were many places where they simply didn’t work: inside buildings, out in the sticks, even in the middle of some cities.
Starting in the 1990s for most Americans, the digital revolution has seen connectivity increased to the point that it is easy to foresee a time when everyone would become available to everyone all the time. Cellular signals have spread into remote rural areas, including national parks, and even into subways. The FAA is currently considering a proposal to allow the use of cellular phones on airplanes.
One place where cellular phones have been popular has been behind the wheel of an automobile. Getting stuck in traffic isn’t as bad if you know you can make a few important calls while you’re sitting there sucking up the exhaust fumes. (Since everyone else is doing the same thing, of course, their reaction times aren’t as great, which means that traffic jams are bigger and longer, but whatever.)
There’s just no denying the appeal of using time that used to be close to a total waste — transportation from point A to point B — to make a call. Not to mention the ability to check Google Maps for a quicker route around that jam, and to text your friend to tell him that you’re running late.
If the NTSB gets its way, all that will be over. Cops will have devices that allow them to track the use of cell phones from moving cars, and though some people will break the law, for most the only interaction you’ll have is with your radio or fellow passengers — if, of course, it’s enforced.
It’s obviously impossible to quantify the cost to business, but I have to think it would be high.
On the other hand, the glory days of unavailability would return. Don’t feel like picking up a call? You can always tell your boss you were stuck in traffic. It would have been illegal for you to talk to them.
Mothers Against Talk Driving?
Talkers won’t be demonized as badly as drinkers, but the media and politicians will declare those who break laws against using cell phones while driving to be irresponsible buttholes, who don’t care if they kill your kid so they can pick up a pizza without waiting for it to be made. There will be ad campaigns, sad-eyed dead children and of course high fines, prison sentences and asset forfeiture.
Trains and Planes Instead?
Some people may decide to switch to alternative forms of transportation where they are still allowed to use their phones in transit. For many people, especially those conducting business during daytime hours, the desire for conductivity will trump all other considerations.
Which might be good — that means less traffic on the roads.
Experts say that we should expect fewer accidents as a result of a cell ban, which would obviously be great, but what about culling the herd? What if we end up with more, stupider people?