America is engaging in its latest great debate: whether it needs to ban cell phone use while driving. That is what the National Transport Safety Board has proposed. That would bring the USA broadly in line with a growing list of countries (if I can trust Wikipedia). I know what I think. Bans wont stop the use of cell phones (or other mobile devices) while driving, which has become an all-too-common practice. People may argue that their calls or text message are important, or short, or some seemingly other extenuating reason, and they may be, but it is unlikely that many of those actions will be essential. Many will argue that they can perform activities with their cell phones with little or no distraction. I personally do not believe that: once your eyes are not on the road ahead or behind you are not really paying attention and that lapse can be fatal. Asking the question whether the risk of the action is acceptable compared to the risk of a fatal accident wont settle the argument. I suspect that most people do not really think that they will get into accidents, so do not see their actions as raising the likelihood of an accident. Humans are also very good at self-justification (or wanting to make individual exceptions) when it comes to dealing with vices that they want to perform.
Arguments will rage about whether use of cell phones and similar devices offer more distractions for drivers than paying attention to other in-vehicle electronics such as a GPS device; or changing channels on the radio; or switching between music tracks on the radio or something like an iPod; or just talking to other passengers; trying to control small children who may be sitting in the back; or dealing with cigarettes; or trying to read a paper map; or reading a book or newspaper; or putting on make up; or shaving. I cannot say and it is probably really hard to measure. I list those things simply because in the course of any week, I see at least one of them being performed by drivers who are clearly not paying full attention to driving. We could compile lists of accidents and what drivers were doing moments before the crash, but the proximate activities are often commonplace things and it does not seem that they will be banned. Living in the greater Washington area, I would add to the list of distractions trying to fathom what road signs mean (especially at or near busy interchanges–and in case you think I am being facetious, I suggest you try navigating I-495 near Tysons Corner during the current road and rail construction) or even see them because they are obscured by bushes or trees. Better driving and awareness of risks on the road is really what is more likely to reduce accidents in all circumstances.
When I approach junctions, if I see another vehicle approaching that could collide with me, I try to look carefully to see what the driver is doing (as well as what passengers may be doing in that vehicle). It only takes a few seconds to do that and by slowing down a little on approach to the junction I can more easily stop if the other vehicle does not. It is easier at stop signs than at traffic lights, but I try to do it anyway, trying to be mindful of what the vehicle behind me, if any, may be doing. That’s a lot to do for a simple manoeuvre. In fact, a lot of attention and caution are needed in almost every driving manoeuvre, which is why I am just leery of anything that reduces full attention of drivers when on the road . My daughter knows that if my mobile phone rings I will hand it to her to answer or simply ignore it till I get to my destination.
The practical aspects of how you police the proposed bans effectively are not trivial. We cannot stop people speeding even though there is often a plethora of signs posted. People speed and pay the fines: risk-reward calculations on the chances of being caught against speed and convenience are made. That will likely be the same with a cell phone ban. Even if you use technology to disable devices, if a human still has discretion to control that, the line of least resistance is likely to be to override.
My little daughter and I have been playing a game for the past few weeks. It’s about spotting the strangest things that people do while using a cell phone. We laugh when we see people yelling apparently to no one. We crack up when someone walks into a tree or another person. We get stomach cramps when we see people freeze and text furiously before getting back into whatever they were doing, especially if they were out taking exercise or walking their dogs. The need to spend time with the device has become almost second nature. Will that change soon? Unlikely. A ban on cell phones may save some or even many lives–and that would be a great good–but a ban on other distractions for drivers would also achieve many positive results.