Between an influx of questions to my inbox about cell phone etiquette and texting, and the latest plea from Oprah Winfrey to stop using these devices while driving, I decided to address this important issue from the point of view of doing the right thing. As I have repeatedly expressed in previous columns, etiquette is based on common sense. In the case of texting while driving, this is a total lack of common sense. Anything that distracts a driver of a motor vehicle from his full attention to the road is dangerous, and potentially deadly. It is dangerous to him, to the passengers in his car and to any other passengers in other vehicles sharing the same road. I think we can all agree that safety should be the highest priority when we are behind the wheel of a car.
It has been proven that the brain's activities are focused differently when multi tasking. Talking on the phone qualifies as a task and is not related to driving. Some will be quick to argue that there is no difference between speaking on a hand held phone than talking to a fellow passenger. This is incorrect and ridiculous. The person with whom you are speaking on a cell phone is probably unaware that you are driving; is certainly unaware of the road or traffic conditions; and is totally incapable of being another set of eyes for you while navigating the roadways. The person sitting in the car can stop talking or call attention to something missed by the driver i.e. a potential hazard, etc.
When I was gathering content for this article, I asked a friend about his feelings on this subject. He said that he agreed with the basic premise, but that he had a business and he had to talk on the phone, or he would lose business. He also went on to inform me that it is against the law in many places to pull off to the side of the road except in the case of an emergency, and that I had better check my facts before passing out advice. What he failed to mention is that it is illegal in many places to use a hand held cell phone while driving. I smiled and nodded thankfully and conceded that he had raised some good points. Then I began to think about this whole picture because it was flawed in my mind. The scary part of his arguments is that they are what many cell phone users feel - they are entitled to do.
This is where I employed common sense and the wisdom and pleas of Ms. Winfrey. We’re really dealing here with a matter of priorities. Life itself does take precedence over everything else. Very few people have business, which is so urgent that a phone call cannot be returned or handled later in the day. If you are responding to a medical emergency, natural disaster, or catastrophe and must get in touch with the necessary parties, these are legitimate reasons to have to use a cell phone. Surely one's life or the life of other people would never, ever be considered less important. I think this points out one of the biggest problems of cell phones and PDAs today. People suddenly are so important that their phones must be answered immediately. This is actually a snap shot of self-importance.
People have a distorted sense of reality. As a result of this egotistical view of the world, we show incredible disrespect for those around us. Last week I discussed the rudeness of private conversations in public places. Now you can add cars to the list of places not to have conversations on the phone. This extensive use of cell phones is indicative of how out of control society is in terms of its humanity.
Texting takes distraction to a whole other level. It is not dissimilar from fidgeting and looking for hidden controls or anything else that takes your eye off the road. I experienced this first hand while driving and looking for a heater control while driving on an icy road. It took literally a split second and the Land Cruiser was off the road and upside down in a ditch. We were lucky that no one in the car was hurt or killed. I will tell you that experiencing such a traumatic accident first hand changes a person's point of view in a hurry and permanently.
One friend of mine says that if someone wants to drive by themselves and fidget with the radio, or chat on the phone that is one thing; but if she's going to be in the car, it's not going to happen. That's one viewpoint, but does not take into account other travelers or the precious life of the driver.
It's clear that these thoughtless and reckless driving distractions and behaviors will be outlawed soon. However, it does not take a law to engage common sense. Think about how precious life is and how many things we have for which to be grateful. Think about how our actions can affect others. If we take the time to think about these simple truths, respecting one another on the roadways is pretty easy. Sadly there are many people who dial up the phone or begin texting as soon as they get in the car, much the way some people light up a cigarette, chew gum, apply mascara and drink coffee while driving. Unfortunately, the phone is even more dangerous than cigarettes. Maybe one day soon common sense will be more common and we will do the right thing.