On the Blah, Blah, Blah
I live in Sacramento. Due to certain events in my personal life this year, during the period from about Christmas to right about now, I have not gotten out much. I live about a mile from work, so I get to see developments on the road within that mile on a daily basis. I have to pick up my boy and drop him off again, so I get to supervise events on the freeway and backroads within, oh, twenty miles — about weekly. Outside of that, my motoring has been entirely occasional.
Which, I think, puts me in a great position to comment on trends. So, on the chattering away on cell phones by my fellow motorists: From my perspective, within the Big Tomato, it has been on a rise I can only fairly call meteoric. I would say three years ago it was one out of ten drivers, two years ago it was two out of ten, last year it was three out of ten, now it’s nearly half of them. Chatting away, 75 miles an hour, maybe 85, maybe more, blah, blah, blah.
I have gotten really pissy about drivers texting away, not necessarily blabbing away, behind the wheel. Although I’ve done it, plenty of times. It’s one of those things that is so wrong, it doesn’t matter if I’ve done it or not. But while maintaining my laser-like focus on the subject at hand, as any decent writer does, I allowed myself to wander down a bunny trail…
One more thing. When time and space permit, I’d like to expound on my little rant about talking on cell phones, without the benefit of hands-free devices.
We have studies that say when you talk on a hands-free device, your level of distraction is on par with what you’d be experiencing if you held the cell phone up to your face. Those studies are bullshit, you hear me? I live in the Big Tomato. I see people talking on their cell phones all the time — not-hands-free. Up to their faces.
It is…let me stress this properly…it is PHYSICALLY FREAKIN’ IMPOSSIBLE to do a check to your blind spot, before a lane change, while talking on a cell phone, without being completely absolutely no-mistakingly obvious that you’re doing a head-check. It is a deeply conspicuous movement you have to do. Those fuckers are not doing it, I guaran-damn-tee you. It is up to everybody else to get the hell out of their way, they know not what the hell they’re doing. I can personally vouch for this, swearing an oath to that effect, just by watching them. They are glancing in their passing mirrors — if they’re even doing that — and then breezily just sliding on over. Hope you’re not there when they do.
The Sacramento state assembly has passed a bill that would impose a $50 fine on drivers caught blah, blah, blah-ing away on their cell phones behind the wheel.
The morning guys on the radio, who — deeply distrust liberals, but aren’t all about promoting Republicans, just want to find the common-sense solution, and on the way do as decent a job as they can spotting the crooks, liars and charlatans and talking-point-peddlers — thereby ending up agreeing with me a whole lot of the time — blasted the bill, which, by the way, has my whole-hearted support. Their position is that anyone who believes hands-free devices make your phone conversation safer, such as myself, is being duped by a bunch of crooks. My position is that he who believes hands-free devices don’t make the conversation safe, is the one getting duped by a bunch of crooks.
The guys and I had a brief water-cooler conversation about this yesterday, following the radio program…the following points came up.
So anyhoo…we live in the Age of Google. I don’t have to speculate on this stuff. I don’t have to form my prejudices on extremely short-sighted and under-informed opinions like some guy living a hundred years ago. I’m a twenty-first century search-engine-literate man. I can draw upon a tiny sampling of items, and form my short-sighted and under-informed prejudices based on those.
So let’s get to it.
Actually, I wasn’t too surprised by what I found. Let’s take the biggest group first…I found, in reverse chronological order, this and this and this and this and this. Just what was promised; “lots of studies,” maybe even, “all the studies.” One problem: The same names keep popping up. Frank Drews. David Strayer. William Johnson. Human Events.
This creates two issues. Issue One, whether the effort is deliberate or not, the public is being programmed. It isn’t hard to find people who consider themselves to be well-educated on this issue, willing to chirp up — even taking the initiative to chirp up — and chime in with that “independent” thought, “all the studies say talking on a headset is just as distracting as holding the cell up to your face.” Well, it really isn’t “all” the studies…although to be fair to Drs. Drews, Strayer and Johnson, and Human Events, there are some other studies saying the same thing like this one and this one. So I’m not going to go so far and say “Aha! It’s just Dr. Drews, Strayer and Johnson, and Human Events, nobody else has studies saying that!” because that would not be true.
The point stands nevertheless. Unanimity amongst the “studies,” as is often the case, turns out to be purely an illusion. Those three are, intentionally or not, “flooding” the study pool. Note the timeframe. They went on a tear in 2003, again in 2004, again in June of this year, and again just now.
Which brings us to Issue Two. Why do Drs. Drews, Strayer, Johnson, and Human Events keep doing this? It really doesn’t matter what their financial ties are, when you think about it. Something is motivating them to do this. They have a bug of some kind up their collective butts, and they like to do “studies” that find a certain conclusion. Well, studies aren’t supposed to be doing that; studies are supposed to find whatever conclusion the data will tell the studies to find. Could Drs. Drew, Strayer and/or Johnson set out on one of their studies, gather the data, and, looking over it to find the patterns in the most scientific, objective, unbiased way possible — come to learn something contrary to their own biases? If so, would the conclusion make it into print? Let’s just say I have my doubts.
That you can go the other way — gather the data, look it over with a bias toward saying the opposite, and, whether influenced by the bias or not, post a conclusion compatible with that bias — has been proven. Plantronics, which makes bluetooth headsets much like the Cardo unit I use, has financial ties to yet another study two years ago that said the exact opposite.
A new study finds that drivers’ reaction time, accuracy and consistency of speed improved significantly when they used a headset with their cell phone, compared with using a handheld phone.
The study is one of the few to analyze physical impairment experienced while driving and using a mobile phone; to date most other studies have focused solely on the mental distraction of using a mobile phone while driving.
The study was commissioned by Plantronics, which manufactures headsets. It was conducted by Design Science, an independent human factors research firm that has conducted other driving-related studies for a wide range of organizations including the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Now this blog, which nobody actually reads anyway, is named after a library administrator who figured out the size of the earth before the Time of Christ, by peeking into holes in the ground. We’re all about ignoring studies…or, at least, subordinating the studies to our own observations, when studies and our observations run in directly opposite directions. And our observation is this:
People who do lane changes to the left, when they talk on cell phones held up to their left ears, do not check their blind spots. They simply don’t. It’s provable. And it’s asserted pretty substantially, to the point you could bet serious money on it with high confidence, they’re not even checking their passing mirrors.
They just move over.
It’s easily observed. It’s proven. If a study says otherwise, the study is wrong. If these chuckleheads were learning as much about their blind spots while talking on their cell phones, as well as I learn about my own blind spot when I’m on a hands-free device, their body motions would be so incredibly awkward, and so easily observed, there would be no mistaking it…and they’d probably be imposing a wholly different traffic hazard just going through that snaky body motion. It borders on the physically impossible. And to do the proper head check without me being able to see you’re doing it, protrudes well into that neighborhood of impossibility. It simply cannot be done.
And like I said the other day, those fuckers are not checking their blind spots, they’re just moving over without looking.
This is about 99% of the folks talking on cell phones without the benefit of a hands-free device. And forty percent of the folks on the road, give or take, are doing exactly that. It’s scary, scary stuff.
I’m pretty big on the libertarian, freedom-from-tyranny angle. I’m one of the “Where does it talk about fire halls in the Constitution, huh?” kinds of guys. But I know of no constitutional provision, state or federal, direct or implied, that calls up a problem with a state regulation against phone use while driving.
And, much as I hate to use those four words heralding the arrival of the nanny state, the four words do apply…the time has come.
But it should be noted, we have been here before.
Update 9/1/06: Flashback to this great piece of faux-sexist humor from Car & Driver that was brought to my attention back in May.
This morning on I-95, I looked over to my left and there was a woman in a brand new Cadillac doing 65 mph with her face up next to her rear view mirror putting on her eyeliner.
I looked away for a couple seconds and when I looked back she was halfway over in my lane, still working on that makeup.
As a man, I don’t scare easily. But she scared me so much; I dropped my electric shaver, which knocked the donut out of my other hand.
In all the confusion of trying to straighten out the car using my knees against the steering wheel, it knocked my cell phone away from my ear, which fell into the coffee between my legs, splashed and burned Big Jim and the Twins, ruined the damn phone, soaked my trousers and disconnected an important call.
Damn women drivers!