The first time my father took me out in a car to teach me to drive, he told me always to think of the car as a “loaded weapon.” It was a rare flourish of metaphorical fancy utterly uncharacteristic of him, which is mostly why I remember it to this very day. But it was also apt instruction. A car, indeed, is a potentially lethal device, and anytime you get behind the wheel of an automobile you need to treat it like a cocked pistol.
I was reminded of my father’s words this past week after the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a wholesale ban on any use of cellphones while driving – texting, talking, even talking with a hands-free.
Unfortunately, blaming cellphones for distracted drivers is merely a flavor-of-the-week distraction from the real problem, which is driving itself. The fact simply is that the passenger car is one of the worst technological innovations ever sprung on humanity. Licensing nearly everyone to drive is giving every citizen beginning at absurdly young ages like 15 or 16 the equivalent of a loaded rifle. While cars have undoubtedly provided unprecedented freedom and opportunity to many – as well as fueling a significant portion of Bruce Springsteen’s imagery – it has come at a price, including immense environmental destruction, social dislocation, the destruction of family and communal ties, and, years before the cellphone came on the scene, the loss of life and limb.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2010, 32,885 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States, and an estimated 2.24 million people were injured. The fact that we allow this behavior – that we allow driving – in spite of the inherent risks, and that we are suddenly talking about the use of hands-free devices while driving, speaks more to our misguided priorities and our fuzzy thinking than to any real dangers posed by the latter. What we need to ban is driving, not cellphones, which are just a convenient target among a multitude of potentially lethal ways to distract drivers.
Think about it – is talking on a hands-free device any more distracting than talking to a passenger in the seat next to you? In fact, it’s probably less distracting, as you won’t be tempted every now and then to look at your interlocutor out of politeness, to show (or pretend to show) that you are paying attention.
But what about all the other distractions that we no longer even question? I hear no hue or outcry against GPS systems that pop out of dashboards, talk to drivers and display their very distracting animated map which no driver in his right mind should look at while operating a moving vehicle.
For that matter, what about old-fashioned paper maps – they ought to be banned as well.
And what of such timeworn distractions as the car radio? Changing channels in search of something you want to hear — meaning that you are thinking about what you are hearing and not about what you are seeing on the highway – is certainly distracting. And then, once you do find something you want to hear – be it one of Garrison Keillor’s soporific monologues or a favorite song that has you screeching along at top volume — your attention is again divided between driving and entertainment.
And what of audio books? Should we feel any more comfortable with the idea that the driver behind us or next to us is listening to someone narrating Clive Cussler’s latest thriller rather than talking to her daughter on her hands-free device about what’s for dinner?
And with car dashboards increasingly taking on the look and feel of airplane cockpits, with multiple climate controls, cruise controls, automatic window openers, digital performance reports – aren’t these all distractions from the business at hand?
And what of eating while driving? The entire fast-food drive-through industry has sprung up around this totally acceptable practice, but what could be more dangerous than biting into a sloppy Big Mac or drinking a boiling hot cappucino while steering a car down the interstate at 75 miles per hour?
And what about all the external distractions facing drivers? How about the proliferation of confusing road signs directing drivers to dozens of different exits, service stops, rest areas and the like. Why do we allow commercial billboards to capture our attention while we are driving, with their snazzy graphics and catchy headlines trying to catch our attention in order to sell us something while we are driving?
For that matter, what about scenic vistas? Shouldn’t we ban the routing of highways with beautiful views that merely encourage drivers to take their eyes away from the car in front of them and divert them to the left or right at sweeping valleys, carpeted hillsides and the like?
You get the point. There are a myriad of things to distract drivers, and listing them all is an exercise in absurdum. The point is not the distractions – the point is that as long as millions of distractible human operators are allowed to pilot individual passenger cars on crowded roads and highways, society is dancing with death.
Cellphones are the least of the problem. The problem is cars and what they have wrought. And the solution is everything but cars. We need a national – nay, a global – commitment to phasing out the use of owner-operated passenger autos in favor of every other kind of people mover – trains, subways, trolleys, buses, multiple-passenger taxicabs. Obviously, the operators of these sorts of vehicles need to be properly trained and licensed and they must adhere to a strict regimen preventing them from engaging in any behavior that might distract them from their job.
Until then, licensing people to drive cars, and making them widely available to almost everyone, is like issuing our citizenry gun permits along with the weapons and ammunition – and making it socially acceptable to go outside and fire wildly and aimlessly in crowds.
We really won’t be safe on the road until we ban driving while driving.