HANDS-FREE PHONES THE LAST THING WE NEED

BILL POLLACK
Section: Opinion,  Page: A13

Date: Friday, February 12, 2010

Philadelpha Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish recently implored Apple's Steve Jobs to market "a comfortable, fashionable and safe hands-free device" so that we can "keep two hands on the steering wheel while we talk on the phone" ("A gadget culture needs a hands-free phone," Feb. 4.) Bemoaning New York's enacted and Pennsylvania's proposed ban on hand-held cell phones, Mr. Smerconish thinks this will "solve the [distracted driving] problem free of government's heavy hand."


Alas, no amount of technology will solve this problem. It's time that Mr. Smerconish and the rest of the motoring public recognize this.


First, our brains aren't adept at multitasking. As the caveman fled from a saber-toothed tiger, my guess is that he wasn't also thinking about better spear-tip manufacturing methods. Second, I'll wager that he also wasn't thinking about how the others in his hunting party were faring.


Let's translate this to driving. Have you ever gone around someone who was driving 10 miles an hour slower than everyone else -- and doing so in the left lane of a highway -- and glanced over to see that he was talking on the phone? It doesn't matter whether the phone was held up to an ear or was a hands-free device.


Also, it's likely the driver couldn't care less that his focus -- and probably his car -- was drifting.


Consider a non-phone example. Have you noticed how many motorists drive with only daytime running lights or don't have any lights on at all when it's raining or snowing during the day? Because their taillights aren't on, their cars are not extra-visible to following motorists. This is a pretty simple, even-a-caveman-can-do-it concept. If it's lousy weather out, pretend it's nighttime. Yet I have to conclude that the prevailing attitude is, "I can still see the road ahead OK, so why should I make any extra effort?"


Mr. Smerconish cites a study showing that car crashes haven't declined in states with hand-held phone bans. Such laws may slow the growth of hand-held use, but I'm sure overall phone use hasn't declined, either.


What can we do about this?


First, we need to impress upon drivers that driving while talking is dangerous. Studies, including those undertaken by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have shown that the risks of DWT are akin to those of DWI. The NHTSA included the admonition that "hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk" ( The New York Times, July 20). Perhaps drivers education courses could include an obstacle course session, negotiated with and without a simultaneous phone conversation; students could note any changes in traffic cone "fatalities."


Second, we need to redirect enforcement activities to combat "me first" driving. Failure to use turn signals for lane changes and on- and off-ramp transitions and failure to have headlights on in inclement weather ought to be routinely ticketed.


As a frequent motorcyclist, I'll continue to give a wide berth to drivers out there, as I'm harder to see and more vulnerable than most cars and drivers.


And you other folks? As they say on public radio's "Car Talk" program: "Hang up and drive!"


Bill Pollack, formerly a Motorcycle Safety Foundation-certified instructor, is a Niskayuna area resident. His e-mail address is bill@billanddot.com.