Driving While Talking on a Cell Phone = Driving While Drunk

How many of you see incidents in traffic where someone is clearly not fully "there?" Raise your hands. Yep. Almost everyone sees that on a daily basis. Sometimes on my relatively short drive to work (about seven miles) I see a "cell phone driver" and follow them, counting the number of times they brake for no apparent reason, run stop signs, turn without signals, go off the road, or cross the center line. It's truly amazing.

As you may know, I am a serious multitasker and defend my right to be such at work and at home. But as good as I am at that, I've tested myself with cell phones while driving (with a family member watching to take over the wheel) and I cannot safely drive and talk on a cell phone. It has nothing to do with my hands being busy, it has to do with my brain being engaged elsewhere, trying to figure out the 70 percent of communication that's nonverbal, while I can only hear someone's voice.

This is more of a rant than you might usually hear from me. Partly that's because I was almost killed by a cell phone driver a year ago. As I drove my car through the intersection of Fifth and Liberty, in Ann Arbor, a fellow in a very large pickup truck driving west on William Street, talking on the cell phone, ran right through the red light and smashed into my right front end at 30 mph. Luckily, I was driving my red Suburban, "Clifford the Big Red Truck," instead of "Cliffy," my tiny little Chevy Aveo, which I can almost drive up into the rear compartment of Clifford. I was uninjured, but I lost the use of Clifford for a week or more.

Just a few weeks ago, I was driving home on Waters Road, a dirt road with very little traffic, and I saw a fellow driving out his several-hundred foot driveway a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, on the right. Now, there was no other traffic, and when this new mini-mansion he was driving away from was built, the developer bulldozed all the trees and bushes, so there was no sight-line issue.

At the speed I was driving, 40 mph, he and I would arrive at the end of his driveway at the same time, but I could see he had his hand up to his ear, so I slowed down to arrive just after he got there. Sure enough, even though I was less than 30 feet away, he didn't even slow down as he hit the end of his driveway and turned up Waters Road towards me. He hadn't even seen me, and would have smashed into me if I had not accommodated him.

My personal theory about American drivers is that most of us learn in our youth to drive at the very limit of our driving capabilities. (Recent research on brain maturation shows that for many, good decision-making d'esn't begin to happen until age 25.) So, as adults, because that's how we taught ourselves and it became a habit, we're always pushing to go faster and faster and be right on the edge. When something happens to make either the driving environment more difficult (fog, traffic) or to impede our capabilities (alcohol, cell phone usage), we find ourselves driving as we usually do--but outside our capabilities, and bad things start to happen.

A new study in the journal Human Factors, published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society estimates that cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries each year. Here's a link to an article in Live Science about that study. How did this come about? How is it becoming accepted that people who are as incapacitated by cell phone usage as people who are legally drunk with high blood alcohol, find it responsible to drive and be such menaces? Yes, the same scientists have found that people chatting on cell phones drive like people with blood alcohol levels exceeding 0.08 percent.

What technologies are next in cars and who's going to be responsible for the damage? Well, wireless Internet, speech recognition systems, and e-mail are all slated to be in cars soon. Who's responsible for the damage they'll cause, and who asked us if we thought it was okay?

Already we hear news reports and anecdotal reports from friends about seeing people watching movies while they drive, even pornographic movies. Just last night I was followed, way too closely, for a while by a guy who had his laptop propped up on his steering wheel.

I'd like to see automobile manufacturers held responsible for the misuse of technologies put into moving vehicles. Yes, I know about "personal responsibility," but I believe that extends to understanding and being responsible for the consequences of what you do--including the design and safety of the products that you make. It d'es an innocent auto victim no good at all to have relied on the "personal responsibility" of a cell phone driver who mangles them in an accident and then hasn't the funds to recompense them.

We need standards for deciding about the appropriate use of information technology in automobiles, along with a lot of consumer behavior research to determine what people are actually going to do with those technologies. There should be a role for colleges and universities to play in that research, since few would trust such research conducted by the auto companies.

If we don't have reasonable standards, and research to back them up, well then I guess it continues to be a good thing that we're also graduating all those trial lawyers.

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