Kevin Baldwin recently posted an article at 3 Quarks Daily last month about the harrowing experience of his wife and small child surviving a near-fatal car accident six years ago. It’s quite a good read, and touches on issues ranging from the complex emotional and personal trauma of the event, to the absolute savagery of modern American health insurance. Critics of that industry who read the piece will be swept up in anger and righteous indignation. Supporters of the industry, if they have any conscience and honesty, will feel embarrassed; or else they’ll offer the kinds of tired, mealy-mouthed excuses that should earn them a crisp slap.
But it’s not until near the end of the piece that Baldwin reveals why his wife’s minivan was crushed from behind by a flatbed truck that actually sped up as she was turning into a driveway. It was because the truck driver was distracted.
You guessed it. He was talking on the phone.
3 Quarks Daily has an international readership, and in the comments section to Baldwin’s story, some wondered why there aren’t laws in the U.S. about using your phone while driving, as there are in most European countries. In fact, we actually have many laws on the subject, but that’s part of the confusion. There is no uniformity.
Most driving regulations in the United States are local and state statutes, not federal law. Federal regulations typically only cover federal highways. So aside from the interstates, you have a panoply of laws all around the country. In some places you can do just about anything you want. In some places you can talk but not text. In some places you can talk, but only with a hands-free device. In some places it depends on your age or even what kind of vehicle you’re driving.
Irregular regulation creates confusion, to be sure. But something we should not overlook is what occurred during the 1990s and early 2000s, when cell phones were still new. At the time, cell phone companies felt it was important to “establish their product” by promoting cell phone use in every imaginable circumstance. They wanted people to use the new gadgets as much as possible, and not just to grease the profits that flowed to them in an era before unlimited minutes. They also wanted to normalize what seemed like space-age technology, and make it vital to the marketplace.
Talk on the phone while you’re working, while you’re playing, while you’re eating, while you’re on the toilet, while you’re having sex. And of course, while you’re driving.
Cell phone industry groups like CITA spent uncounted millions lobbying state legislatures around the country to oppose any and all restrictions on using phones while driving.
The industry has since changed course to some degree, but the damage it wrought is substantial. And it’s not just all the accidents caused by distracted drivers; by 2003, a Harvard study had already attributed 333,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths to crashes caused by drivers who were on the phone. Nor is it merely the patch quilt of laws across the nation: in some states like California, most everything’s against the law; in some states like Ohio, you can do whatever the hell you want; and most states have partial regulation depending on factors ranging from what kind of phone technology you’re using to whether or not you’re driving a school bus.
But perhaps in the long run, the greatest damage wrought by the cell phone industry effort to curb such laws, is that it shaped our culture. When American society failed to establish sound rules of the road, most Americans came to believe that it’s okay to talk on the phone and/or text while driving. Regardless of which laws are now in effect, too many people already have no qualms about doing it. Why? Because the practice was allowed to flourish early on, and so it came to be accepted as normal behavior. Which helps explain why 73 percent of people recently polled by Nationwide Insurance admitted to using their phones while driving.
Today, most people acknowledge the danger of texting while driving, and many even acknowledge the danger of talking on the phone while driving. However, most people still see it as a general problem that they can personally overcome. They think they can handle it. Because ya know, the real problem is other reckless drivers out there who don’t know how to do it responsibly. Right?
Of course, this is much the same attitude that most people used to have about drinking and driving, which once upon a time was legal, then only lightly regulated. It was considered acceptable behavior.
"Drunk drivers killing people is awful, but I know what I’m doing. Let’s have one more for the road."
Which brings us back to the famous 2006 study from University of Utah Cognition Lab that found talking on the cell phone (even with a hands-free device) impairs a motorist to about the same degree as driving drunk. It’s that dangerous.
It took a lot of hard work, but Americans eventually reshaped their cultural attitudes about drinking and driving. Of course, some people still drive drunk, but society now takes the issue very seriously and there are no longer any debates about whether or not it’s irresponsible and dangerous behavior. It’s time we started reshaping our cultural attitudes about phones and driving as well.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor.