We really, really aren’t good with risk. Who recently pointed out that more Americans were killed last year by furniture in their homes than terrorism? And it was in the august British Medical Journal, of all places, that I read recently that there is no clear evidence that wearing a cycling helmet saves lives. And so to the roads, and technology . . . .
The number of fatalities on America’s roads has begun to rise, and it’s plain that thousands of deaths and many thousands of injuries are attributable to one cause: the cellphone. The weak generic category “distracted driving” is entirely unhelpful. Of course eating fries and drinking iced tea, like turning on the radio, can distract. Nothing, nothing distracts like a device, whether used for texting, tweeting, or speaking; handheld, or handsfree.
The intrusive commingling of us and our machines has found its most difficult entry into our everyday lives at this simple point. And while we have also proved highly ineffective at regulating cellphone social conduct, no-one dies because of cell-yell in a Starbucks or atrocious manners at table (though people do die all the time crossing railroad tracks with phones glued to their ears; a tragic end, but essentially death by moron).
Meanwhile, thousands of bodies are being mangled on our roads. Think of a massacre of 100 men, women, and children; then another the next week; then another every week; and you will get the idea. It is probably many more.
3 quick points:
1. We have failed as a community to address this issue, and for various reasons the checks and balances of the law have not solved our problem (multi-billion dollar settlements against providers, or manufacturers, along the lines of tobacco and asbestos would resolve the issue overnight; they may yet).
2. The evidence suggests that “handheld” bans that permit “handsfree” use – and are the legislation of choice at the moment – are a trick. Some studies suggest handsfree may actually be more dangerous, since we are less aware that our focus is in a conversation, not the car, than if we had to hold the item as a reminder. Certainly it seems to be no safer. It offers the specially dangerous thing, the illusion of safety, which in fact exacerbates the risk. People often have lengthy “legal” handsfree conversations for business and personal reasons and consider this normal daily activity.
3. One notable Australian study suggests that cellphone use while driving is exactly as dangerous as alcohol use; that is, that DUI is the same whether the influence is wine or a legal handsfree conversation. Yet we demonize “drunk drivers” with draconian penalties; handsfree chitchat is almost a required activity of moms in suburban minivans. (This is perhaps the single most ridiculous example of the illusions of “science-driven” policy, as I recently pointed out in discussion with a relevant expert at the NIH; he had read the Aussie document and had no defense to my argument.)
We all know what needs to be done. Cut the handsfree/handheld illusory distinction. Up the penalties. Or just make driving under the influence legal. Your choice.