Cellphone usage raises many questions

Published 8:55 am Thursday, June 14, 2012

Column: Dave Churchill, Guest Column

Walking over to the library the other day, I had to dodge off the sidewalk to escape collision with a youngster who was chatting on his cell while riding.

Dave Churchill

Using one hand to grip a phone while bicycling struck me as a bit perilous to the rider (as well as to me), but because the rider looked to be at most 10 years old, I shrugged it off. Few of us exhibited great wisdom at that age.

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Then the next day I read the news reports about a new Centers for Disease Control survey in which 58 percent of high school seniors said that they texted while driving. Forty-three percent of juniors text and drive. That’s going to be my 10-year-old bicycling acquaintance before too many years have passed.

In the interest of brevity, let’s put aside the issues of why a 10-year-old needs a cellphone and why the Centers for Disease Control is studying social phenomena.

Instead, let us consider just how distracting the act of driving a car has become.

Anyone who thinks that texting while driving is limited to high school students hasn’t been paying much attention. It’s a safe bet that everyone who owns a so-called “smartphone” has been tempted to check email, send or read a text, or look up something online while driving. And if everyone has been tempted, a pretty hefty percentage are actually busy looking at their mini-screens instead of the road.

Even talking on the phone is, I’m increasingly convinced, a major hazard. As a runner, I frequently have to cross intersections where cars are pulling up or waiting at stop signs. For years my rule has been that if I can make eye contact with the driver, I keep running. If I can’t, I stop or circle behind the car.

But all bets are off if the driver is on the phone. Even when talking drivers look me in the eye, I’ve learned, they often don’t really see me and are likely to pull away from the stop sign just as I enter the intersection.

Texters often think that holding their phone up high lets them watch the road while they read. Now that it’s illegal to text and drive, however, most scofflaws do the opposite: Holding their phone down low so no one can see them breaking the law. This is clearly hazardous driving behavior.

And it raises the obvious question about why making a phone call while driving is still legal. Punching in numbers on a keypad or scrolling through a contact list requires just as much attention and time away from driving as does texting.

It’s not just the phones that are a problem. Cars themselves are accumulating more and more gadgets that take focus off the road. The car I rented a couple of week ago, a mid-price American sedan, had a radio and climate control system so complex that it scared the heck out of my wife every time I tried to operate it. There was no way to understand the touch controls or operate them without looking away from the road for a considerable time.

Heck, just dialing through all the satellite radio channels is a distraction.

The right answer is to back away from all the gizmos and distractions. That won’t happen, though. Not only is it bad for business, it’s contrary to the American way, which is to layer creature comforts into every possible location.

What we’re headed toward, then, are some vastly more expensive, complex and controlling automation systems that will keep cars from smacking into each other. Simply paying attention would be the easier solution, but check with me in 10 more years: I bet simplicity isn’t the way we’ll go.


Dave Churchill is the publisher of the Austin Daily Herald.