Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cell Phones Don't Kill People

I was listening to the radio yesterday morning, and, for awhile, the topic of the discussion was banning cell phone use while driving. Should we or shouldn't we?

I missed the beginning of the conversation, but I assume it was in response to the National Transportation Safety Board's proposal this week for a ban on cell phone use and text messaging devices while driving.

Now, before I go any farther with this, I guess I should say that there are times when I feel like a refugee from another time.

Not to say that I am old — not yet (although there are times when I feel that I need to be wearing a shirt like the one my mother had — it said, "Hill? What hill? I didn't see any hill!") — but there are definitely times when I feel that technology has gone galloping past me.

Time, I have discovered, doesn't merely fly. It sprints. You younger folks will understand that one day.

Anyway, that's how I feel about cell phones.

As I have written here before, I taught journalism on the college level in the mid–1990s. I left the classroom for several years, but I gravitated back to it last year, taking a job as an adjunct journalism professor in the local community college system.

When I did, I quickly discovered how many things had changed in the intervening years. In the '90s, for example, none of my students had cell phones. Today, they all do. It was essential to implement rules about their use in class to maintain order — and get anything done.

It's a battle I'm still fighting.

On a personal level, I resisted cell phones for many years, and I had pretty good reasons. I'm not married, and I have no children. It was an additional expense, and, in the event of an emergency on the road, I figured (at first) that I could always use a pay phone.

Well, I'm still not married, and I still have no children. Cell phones are still an additional expense, but pay phones have just about disappeared. I finally decided it might be worth the expense to be sure I would have one if something happened — but I only use it when it is absolutely necessary.

See, I've learned that anything can happen — and it can happen all by itself. It doesn't need anyone's assistance.

And I have been wary of cell phones because I have long believed that they were likely to contribute to the accident rate — which certainly doesn't need any help.

When my parents taught me to drive, the thing they emphasized, more than any other, was to keep my eyes on the road. If your attention is distracted, they told me, even for a second, it can have tragic consequences, and one must be ever vigilant — because anything can be a distraction.

A distraction can be a very modest, very momentary thing, like the sound of a dog barking or a sudden movement one catches from the corner of one's eye. But cell phone conversations can go on indefinitely, and the distraction from the task at hand can be far from modest.

The introduction of texting into the mix just raised the risk level, as far as I was concerned. It certainly raised my awareness of the risks.

Perhaps it was due, in part, to the fact that I went without a cell phone for so long, but there were certain things about them that I just never considered — and, to be fair, there were other things that just weren't factors until recently.

Like texting.

And, perhaps because my cell phone is so basic, so ordinary, I'm not entirely acclimated to a world in which the internet is at your fingertips, wherever you are. When I was in graduate school, there was no internet (well, no real commercial internet). A few years later, that was a reality. It was a new frontier, but you could only explore it from your desk at home or at work.

Then, along came laptops, and you weren't tied to a physical location anymore. But laptops are still too big and bulky for some people so access to all of it has been condensed to the "smart phone," a gadget that fits in the palm of your hand.

(Oh, what we could have done with those when I was a general assignment reporter fresh out of college!)

The speed of technological advancements has made so many things possible that my poor mind never imagined most of them — and still needs time to absorb it all.

That point was made clear to me when I heard the listeners' calls.

One observed that he frequently uses the GPS app on his cell phone when he is driving in an unfamiliar area. The cell phone is equipped to "speak" to him so it isn't necessary for him to look at the cell phone, as he would if texting. And his car is equipped for hands–free operation of the cell phone so it really is no different than speaking to a human occupant of the vehicle.

He travels a lot, he said, but he rarely has a traditional conversation on his cell phone — and almost never does so when he is behind the wheel. But, when he is using this GPS feature, which he often does because his work requires him to spend a lot of time in unfamiliar territory, "I'm still talking on my phone," he pointed out, "so, technically, I would be in violation of the law."

True — but not necessarily its spirit.

The law is intended to discourage people from talking on the phone while they're driving — which is certainly a noble objective — although, in a culture in which people can be seen trying to eat cereal, apply makeup, even get dressed behind the wheel during the daily morning rush hour, one can be forgiven for wondering if such legislation goes far enough.

Before the discussion ended, a veteran police officer came on the line. Now, most policemen with whom I have spoken about this agree that cell phone use should be curtailed while driving; they just disagree on how the law should address it.

But this particular officer wasn't too concerned about the use of cell phones behind the wheel. It's just another distraction, he said, no worse than having a conversation with someone else in the vehicle — and he went on to point out that he had many electronic distractions in his police car.

It's all a matter of being mature enough to handle it, he said.

Cell phones don't kill people.

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