Driving, Cellphones, Teenagers

19:53 Thu 13 Sep 2007
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This is all anecdotal, and hence statistically useless, but I’ve noticed far more bad driving correlated with cellphone use recently. Some of it was in Dublin, where I think cellphone use is still higher per capita, but I’ve seen a lot of it around San Francisco also. I think every case of notably bad driving that I’ve encountered in the last month turned out to involve a driver using a cellphone.

Furthermore, they all involved handset, not headset, use. While I’m aware that some studies have claimed that headset use is just as distracting as handset use, I’m not convinced by this idea. The physical distraction of leaning the phone against your ear with your shoulder seems very likely to be a major distraction. Driving is still a physical activity requiring body coordination, and distracting the body seems likely to have a negative effect.

Furthermore, I suspect that the lean required cuts off awareness of the opposite side, because the head isn’t as free to move that way.

Anyway, I doubt many people need convincing that cellphone use while driving is dangerous. (Certainly not that it’s dangerous in others…) Regulation seems like a good idea, just as with other activities considered dangerous to others (running lights, driving drunk, etc.).

(I have a post planned, called “Anarchism and Traffic”, to deal with interactions between my political philosophy and the idea of regulations, so I won’t go into those issues here. But I will point out that any reading of anarchism that rejects all forms of communal rules is overly simplistic and ignores the fact that doing so places a tremendous amount of power in the hands of reckless drivers, a power imbalance that is hardly anarchist in nature.)

There are apparently traffic laws in Ireland banning the use of handsets while driving, but I saw no evidence of enforcement, and lots of handset use, while I was there. There are apparently such laws on the way here, too, and I think that’s probably a good thing, although given the level of traffic enforcement in general around San Francisco, I have no idea if it will make any difference.

In the meantime, there’s this bill, which would ban California teenagers from using cellphones while driving. I find that rather ridiculous, as it’s clear that it’s far more than a teen problem. The bill has other potential problems in that it may define “use of mobile devices” too broadly—it forbids the use of iPods, for example, but does this mean teens can’t use any music player with earbuds, or any music player at all even if it’s plugged into the car’s sound system? What’s the difference between that and the radio? Can they use hands-free phones? If not, is there a strong case against this?

The sfgate.com article mentions the fact that teenagers themselves presented this bill for law. I’d love to know whether or not they considered it for teenagers only, knowing that it wouldn’t also affect those over 18. If so, why would they do that? Are they silly enough to think that only teenagers are distracted by cellphone usage while driving? Or is it a case of them seeing themselves as a distinct political bloc, and hence trying not to meddle in the affairs of other blocs (which is clearly problematic here, since they drive on the same roads as everyone else)?

I’m all for democratic representation for teenagers, but I’m quite suspicious of the article’s tone—if the teens sampled had taken the opposite viewpoint, would it have been as lauded, or even mentioned? Also, if their input on matters such as these (where they appear to agree with the “responsible consensus”) is significant, shouldn’t it also be so on other topics—like school regulations, and so on?

In any case, even if a majority of teenagers agree that the law should only restrict teenage driving/cellphone use (which seems unlikely), I still find it outrageous that the legislature would go along… although it’s easy to see why, because it appears to be doing something about the cellphone/driving problem (thus appeasing to some degree those who want something done about it) while not restricting any of the many voters who might be annoyed that their own cellphone use while driving would be curtailed.

Finally, to vent, the most egregious/dangerous encounter I’ve had recently:
I’m driving down a three-lane higher-speed road, approaching an intersection. I’m in the middle lane and beginning to slow as the road narrows to two lanes after the intersection. I have green lights all the way, however, so I’m not slowing too much. Ahead, in the right lane, a car is waiting to turn right. As I get a little closer to it, I notice that it’s angled oddly for a right turn. The driver starts to take the right turn… and manages, while taking a right turn, to move partly into the lane to their left—my lane. I brake sharply, but can’t all-out slam on the brakes without likely losing control myself and possibly causing accidents with other traffic around me. Luckily the driver proceeds to actually move to the right after extending maybe a foot into my lane. As I pass by, I go to gesticulate/glare, but of course he’s on a cellphone… and completely oblivious.

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