Contemplation: Phones. Why do we do it in the road?

“This relative risk is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit.”

On the risk of talking on a cellular phone while driving,

via the New England Journal of Medicine


According to an article appearing in The New York Times, by Matt Richtel, titled “Promoting the Car Phone, Despite Risks,” drivers on the phone while driving are four times more likely to be in an accident.  One would think that this fact alone would be more than enough to deter people from making calls or answering the phone while they are on the road, and yet I feel that the practice is still very prevelant.  Add to that the even more increased risk of texting while driving, which has caused quite a bit of concerned attention recently, and it is enough to wonder why people even bother to turn on their phones once they get into a car.

Mr. Richtel’s lengthy article does a great job at examining the disconnect between the cellular phone industry and research that strongly emphasizes the risks inherent with driving and talking on the phone.  It is a long history, which can be examined in closer detail with this interactive timeline.  While this history of caution and promotion is certainly interesting, the one thing I found lacking in Mr. Richtel’s article (which isn’t necessarily a criticism of the article on a whole considering its angle) is the consideration of why people choose to talk on phones behind the wheel even regarding the warning of potential life threatening danger.

Personally I wonder if it is in some ways similar to why people still choose to smoke cigarettes even though there is an abundance of research that points to the risks of potentially fatal diseases associated with such habits.  But I think it goes beyond just ignoring the risks, personally I think it has a lot to do with the way that we pursue communications in general.  Cellular phones have greatly revolutionized the way in which we stay connected, and as the technology advances (texting, smart phones with Internet access, etc.) the forms of this connection progresses as well.

As Mr. Richtel points out in his article, that ability to communicate in the car was one of the original marketing points in the fledgling cellular phone industry.  The idea of being connected, of being able to be contacted as well as to contact, wherever one happened to be (the essence of mobile service) has a great appeal.  It creates a sense of immediacy in the world of human interactions.  It also validates a sense of presence.  We believe that we can find people, and be found ourselves, merely by the fact that we know that we own a cell phone and so do others.  This is not entirely untrue about the cell phone revolution as it is arguably one of the prime benefits of owning a mobile phone.

But is it necessary?  For many of us we have convinced ourselves that it is, that life without a phone could not in any way be possible, just as life without satellite television, Internet service, or electricity, surely must be the essence of savagery.  What we often overlook though, to a fault, is that people did survive without these technologies, some of them not all that long ago.  While cellphones have been around for all of my adult life, I can still recall growing up in a world where they were relatively absent.  In fact I, personally, did not own a cell phone until about three years ago, foregoing ownership for my entire college career (I had a pay-as-you-go TracPhone my junior and senior year, but I rarely ever used it, didn’t even know my own number.  Usually it was left turned off buried under papers somewhere on my desk) and yet I survived perfectly fine (though at times my lack of cell phone annoyed a number of my friends).

Our insistence on the necessity of our phones has caused us to lose perspective on not only our personal safety (in regards to the attention needed to drive safely) but also in regards to how we engage ourselves politely in public or in company of others.  I think about the person who is holding a conversation with me, all the while texting to somebody else.  I think about the numerous individuals I had to ask to step outside of the library because they were talking loudly on their phones, completely ignoring the prevalent signage that asks people to use their mobile devices only in designated areas.  I begrudge the assholes on the road, in the supermarket, or in a restaurant who are so caught up in their vital conversations on their cellular phones that they are holding up the rest of us with their unaware rudeness.  While I am sure we have all had our own moments, some people seem to make much more of a habit out of these disgusting behaviors.

It is all loosing sight of the world around us, and considering that we are more important in the moment than anything else that is going on.  Certainly the cellular phone can provide a benefit in the case of a real emergency. Certainly there exist occasions when one needs to be able to take a call regardless of where they may be or what they may be doing.  Certainly there exist benefits of being able to send a short text message or a person or group of people.  But the problem with mobile phones is not any of the legitimate benefits which support their continued use, the problem is when people assume that everything that goes through the devices must be an immediate necessity of attention.  The problem is people being unable to gauge whether something demands that immediate response or whether they can wait a few more minutes until the get to a parking lot or they are outside of a public place.

 In recent times (probably the past year or so) I have made very serious efforts to choose to not answer the phone all the time. I always turn my phone off when I am at work (partially because I have a phone in my office which people can reach me by if they need to). If I am in public, at dinner, or just in a conversation with others, I pretty much will always check my caller ID first and determine whether it is a call that I really need to take.  Sometimes I will excuse myself briefly and take the call and see if it is something that I can call back on (I often do this with my parents, just letting them know that I am busy and that I will call back a bit later).  Other times I will just let the call go to voicemail and hope that there was no emergency (I don’t think there has been one yet).  As far as driving and talking on the phone goes I cannot recall the last time, if ever, that I have answered the phone when I was behind the wheel (part of this is due to my parents repeated insistence of the risks, part of it is my relative short time of owning both a phone and a car, and part of it is the two prior automobile accidents I’ve had and not wanting to have another one).  I have only just recently begun to use texting (because up until this past June I did not have a texting plan and so the cost was ridiculous) but like answering a call, I practice a degree of discretion in regards to how immediately I must reply and disengage myself from the rest of the world to address them.

In many ways I feel that we allow our mobile phones to serve as a crutch to our often times rude, if not dangerous, behavior.  We forget that we have a choice, that the devices are not nearly as demanding of immediate attention as we have allowed them to be.  We forget our humanity in expense of a machine; a tool.  Technology can bestow great benefits upon humanity but I think it is vital that we gauge these benefits carefully and designate lines of etiquette and propriety of use.  We should not designate ourselves to be Luddites, as technological advances are inevitable and unavoidable, but we should consider the restrictions, risks, and overall effects of emerging and present technology.

~ by Nathaniel on December 7, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: