A law many would support, and frequently violate

December 17, 2011 

Maybe this is what they call “cognitive dissonance.” Or maybe it’s just plain old hypocrisy. But up to a fairly obvious point, the proposed law against using cell phones while driving is something nobody can rationally or credibly dispute.

Not even those of us who do it.

I need to admit something that might be even more hypocritical than my support of a ban on driving while jabbering: I hate cell phones.

Actually, I take that back. Not about hating cell phones (I do), but about it being hypocritical. Because dang it, even if I sometimes cell at the wheel, I really do make a point of not indiscriminately inflicting my cellular life on every stranger around me.

Not a day goes by, and rarely an hour, when I’m not at the mercy of some oblivious boob with a phone stuck in his/her ear … blocking a whole aisle at the grocery store, sitting at the parking deck exit ramp with eight cars backed up behind, yammering away loudly in a restaurant or bookstore or checkout line.

Nothing surprises me anymore. Not the jerk ahead of me at the fast food drive-thru who finishes a 10-minute phone conversation before ordering. Not the jerk at the next table in a restaurant who puts his cell on speaker, at full volume, so he can talk while eating. (This is delightful on several levels.) Not the store clerk who has to finish talking before she can take your money. Not even the jerk at the hospital who makes four separate calls, describing somebody’s surgery in graphic detail each time, for the early morning entertainment of everybody in the waiting room.

But as Froma Harrop noted in her column last Sunday, phone-impaired drivers have become a unique kind of annoyance, and a genuine menace, that we recognize before we really even have to look. Most of us can pick them out a mile away, and rarely are we wrong. My personal favorite is the driver who comes roaring up on your tail, almost hitting you, and then stays four inches from your bumper … talking on a cell phone the whole time. And how often does that driver plodding along in the passing lane at 40, with cars backed up to the county line, turn out to be jabbering on a cell phone once you finally manage to get past? Eighty percent of the time? Ninety?

I guess most of the people who cell while driving aren’t that cretinous, and we don’t notice them. But there are still way too many of them out there, and we all know it.

Does anybody old enough to remember the ’70s recall a debate like this about CB radios? There was a mercifully brief period when CBs were the fad of the day, and a lot of people (most of them -- and this will shock you -- men) fancied themselves asphalt cowboys and peppered their conversations with jargon like “superslab” and “Smoky” and “What’s yer 20?” Surely that couldn’t have been any less of a driving distraction, but I don’t remember anybody thinking of CB as a safety issue. Maybe it was too short-lived a fad, or maybe it turned out to be an efficient tool of natural selection.

Where the line gets drawn for me is the suggestion that even hands-free devices should be banned. I get it: The mind is still distracted even if the hands aren’t. But it makes sense only in a perfect-world context. If conversation alone is a serious driver distraction, do we need to consider a law that bans talking in cars altogether? (Parents who’ve listened to their children bicker in the back seat for the last 400 miles might endorse it, but beyond that …)

This is all making light of something that really isn’t funny at all. I’d sincerely like to see a cultural sea change in public attitudes about cell phones, especially in cars. But it can’t happen with anything that crosses a threshold of reality and common sense.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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