Chicago Sun-Times

Shut Up and Drive!

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This story in Slate's online magazine makes the case for why you shouldn't talk on a cell phone while driving, even using a hands-free device, and gives some practical tips on how to break the habit.

If my cell phone rings while I'm driving, I make my daughters answer it and take messages. Or I let it go to voicemail -- no phone call is worth an accident. Here's what I wrote about the cell phone issue back on February 16

Time to hang it up; Stiffer fine probably won't help much -- social shame might

By Mary Wisniewski

Starting this Saturday, the fine for getting caught talking on a
cell phone without a hands-free device will go up to $100, from
$75.
So that means everyone will be able to drive around the city
without once getting cut off by some yahoo on a cell phone, right?

Probably not.

Everyone knows the cell phone ban, first implemented in 2005, is
widely ignored. You see bus drivers doing it, cabbies doing it, and
moms with vans full of kids doing it. Between July 2005 and April
2008, Chicago Police issued 40,303 tickets for violating the ban --
a bigger number than one might expect, but still a far cry from the
number of actual violators.

That doesn't mean the ban doesn't make any sense. Research on the
dangers of cell phone use while driving keeps getting stronger --
it's as bad for your driving skills as being drunk. Drivers talking
on cell phones are four times more likely to crash than someone not
talking on a phone.

The National Safety Council last month called for banning all cell
phone use while driving -- going further than Chicago by asking
states to ban even hands-free driving. National Highway Safety
Administration data show that 80 percent of accidents are caused by
driver inattention, and according to the NSC, cell phone use is the
No. 1 culprit.

The Safety Council contends there's no difference in the level of
distraction while talking on a hands-free device and talking on a
headset while driving. That's because what's causing the
distraction isn't the act of holding a phone -- it's being in a
conversation with someone who's not present.

Knowing how dangerous it is to drive with a cell phone, we as a
community can do one of two things. We can keep increasing cell
phone fines and hope people get scared into compliance. Or we can
take responsibility for ourselves, and hang up.

Here's a confession: I used to talk on the cell phone a lot while
driving, both hands-free and hands-full. It kept me from feeling
bored in traffic, it saved time, and I knew my chances of getting
stopped for it were about equal to my chances of getting ticketed
for jaywalking on State Street.

Last month, I decided enough was enough, and stopped. I looked at
it this way -- I've done 956 really stupid things in my life. But
I've never driven drunk because I was afraid I'd hit a kid. Since
talking on a cell phone can be as bad as driving drunk, that meant
I had to hang up the phone. So I did.

It hasn't always been easy, and I admit I've cheated a few times
while stuck in traffic on the expressway. But I don't talk on the
phone in city traffic anymore. If someone rings my phone, I let it
go to message, and then pull over to the side of the road and call
back.

Laws alone aren't going to stop cell phone use while driving. There
has to be something else -- a sense of social shame. There has to
be a tipping point -- to go from thinking it's OK to drive while on
the phone to thinking it's akin to breaking wind in public.

Think of how many people smoked in the 1970s -- one of my jobs as a
kid was to empty and clean out the household ashtrays. My kids have
never even seen an ashtray. It's not because cigarettes are illegal
-- they're banned from many indoor places, but they're still legal
outside and in people's homes. Most people don't smoke anymore
because enough of them got the message that it's insanely bad for
your health, and social mores evolved to make it seem silly instead
of cool. That's what's going to have to happen with cell phones and
cars.

But some people have to be in the vanguard -- like the people who
refused to smoke in the 1940s and risked looking like health nuts
who only drank milk and ate raw vegetables. Some people have to
decide to be cranks about it, and refuse to answer the phone unless
the car is pulled over. Some people have to decide they're not
going to talk to friends on the phone if they know their friends
are driving. Driving is complicated. You're driving a two-ton
weapon made of chrome and steel. Isn't that an important enough job
-- without needing to have a long-distance heart-to-heart?

Remember the old hymn that goes "Let there be peace on earth, and
let it begin with me"? Well, let there be no cell phones while
driving, and let it begin with me. It won't cure all the ills on
the road -- but it will help. Who's with me?

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2 Comments

Mary,
This is one of those columns you know you should agree with. I have severely cut down on Cell phone driving. I know it's whacked because I have missed exit ramps while talking on it. Fortunately I haven't been in any close calls. You're more disciplined than me. I put myself in the category of avoiding talking rather than eliminating it. I hope there's hope for me yet. It seems the only peace and quiet I get anymore is in the car. I've decided to try and enjoy it. The best method is to turn it off while you're in the car. What you don't know won't eat at you. The messages will stack up on their own.

Maybe you're just a bad driver. I know how to be safe using my cell phone, and there's no reason to give it up.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Wisniewski published on July 21, 2009 1:20 PM.

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