Shut up and drive

The Oregon House of Representatives voted on a bill last Monday that, among other things, would ban drivers under the age of 18 from talking or texting on a cell phone while driving.

The Oregon House of Representatives voted on a bill last Monday that, among other things, would ban drivers under the age of 18 from talking or texting on a cell phone while driving. As one might imagine, House Bill 2872A passed with flying colors, 54-3.

But, strangely enough, police won’t be allowed to pull over teens just for using a phone while driving. They will have to be pulled over for a different infraction before action would be taken regarding their cell phone use. Rep. Greg MacPherson, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said, “It’s a modest proposal, but this is the best we can do.”

The best they can do? This bill has rusty dentures for teeth.

First of all, singling out teenagers is a cheap shot when the problem of dialing and driving applies to everybody. And it’s even more troubling when we consider that this bill creates the mentality that adults can dial and drive responsibly while teenagers cannot.

The truth is the opposite. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that drivers between the ages of 50 and 80 are two to three times less likely to pay attention on the highway when using a cell phone.

In the same study they report that any kind of cell phone use leads to “significant increases in the establishment of non-response to highway traffic situations and increase in time to respond.” They also state that, “prior experience with cellular phones appears to bear no relation to the distracting effect of cellular phone use.”

Human Factors, the quarterly journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society from the University of Utah, concluded that dialing and driving is in the same realm of danger as driving drunk, even if the phone is hands-free. Multiple studies have reported that using a cell phone while driving can increase the likelihood of getting into a crash by four times.

According to The Oregonian, both legislative houses have considered bills this session that would restrict the use of cell phones while driving, and they have all gotten nowhere. So they go after minors instead. Brian Clem, one of the three representatives who voted against the bill, said he would like to take on the bigger picture of this issue, but voiced opposition to “picking on teenagers.”

“Because teenagers can’t vote doesn’t mean we get to go and target them regardless of the logic of the approach,” Clem said.

It doesn’t matter how grizzled of a cell phone veteran you are. It doesn’t matter what kind of phone you’re using. It doesn’t matter what kind of conversation you’re having. Dialing and driving is just never safe. No ifs, no ands, no buts. Never.

We should be pushing for more all-encompassing legislation that restricts cell phone usage while driving, and give law enforcement the right to ticket any driver who dials and drives, even if they are not committing any other infraction.

At first, going after drivers who phone with such gusto may seem a little excessive. It may even smack of invasiveness of our rights. Surely the image of cops on the lookout for any poor soul who dares pick up their phone for one minute to let Aunt Ethel know that they’ll be late for dinner seems, well, a little authoritarian.

But as Americans we tend to forget that driving is not a right, and it never has been. Driving is a privilege, and this brings me to my second point: we should encourage any kind of legislation that will discourage using an automobile.

If we really wish to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and promote sustainability, we have to do more than offer a line of hybrids and put in more bike lanes. That’s part of the solution, yes, but we should also embrace action that will actively restrict the convenience of driving.

It’s hard for us to get out of our cars once we’ve been in them for so long. So let’s make it hard for us to stay in them. Once we make the leap, it’ll be a lot easier to live without a car than we might have thought, especially in our fair city.

The personal benefits of getting out from behind the wheel are almost endless. It gets us out in the fresh air. It gets us exercise, it gets us endorphins instead of frayed nerves from being in a car trying to navigate rush hour. It gets us communicating with people as we sit next to them on the bus or pass them on the sidewalk, even if it’s just a smile or a nod. It gets us back in touch with the world and community in which we live. (And it doesn’t hurt that getting around sans car saves a ton of money.)

I don’t mean to suggest we demonize cars, or drivers for that matter. I love to drive. I miss owning a vehicle. But we’d all do well to start a process of ceasing to rely on them for the functions of basic living, and legislatures would do well to support action that makes it more difficult for us to integrate cars into our daily life–action like making it illegal to talk on a cell phone and drive, no matter what. Five states have already passed such laws. Hopefully Oregon will soon join them.