Hang up and drive!

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois, March 31 -- I've about had it with people talking on the phone while driving.  This is not news to those of you who know me reasonably well (my cars are emblazoned with bumper stickers that echo the headline above), but it's time to take this problem seriously, because it's a significant safety hazard.

Yesterday, I was on my way to an interview with a consulting firm in Chicago's northwest suburbs, when I came up behind a white sedan with a license plate reading DERF 9.  Now, I have no idea who DERF 9, is, except that he's a guy who likes to yak on the phone, to the detriment of his own safety and that of other people out on the roads.  Because of the traffic congestion that's a chronic affliction here in Chicagoland, I ended up driving behind or beside this guy for several miles, during which time he made at least four or five phone calls, one right after another.

(Disclosure statement: Some of you are probably saying, "C'mon, Urb, you worked for Motorola most of last year, in their cellular group -- don't bite the hand that fed you!"  Well, truth be told, the computer on which I'm typing this was paid for with money I earned on last year's consulting job, for the Motorola department that produces the software cell phones and switches use to talk to each other -- software that makes "roaming" possible.  Well, that's true -- but hey, a guy's gotta make a living.)

Anyway, as I followed DERF 9, it became obvious that he was paying much more attention to the phone than to the road -- he'd weave to the right, almost hit the curb, then catch himself and veer back, then go left across the lane-dividing line, make another steering correction, and so on.  He must be one very important guy, I thought to myself, if he finds it so essential to make these phone calls that he can't be bothered to keep his car going in a straight line!  At one point, when he crossed the lane divider further than I thought judicious, I honked my horn at him -- and was rewarded with a middle-finger Rockefeller salute.

My encounter with DERF 9 ended without incident, as I reached the Tri-State Tollway while he wandered off on his own path -- but this kind of thing happens all the time.  Around here, at least, people are so important and so busy, and their time so valuable, that they simply must be on the phone during their entire commute -- the better to maximize efficiency, profit, progress, and otherwise cram as much activity into 24 hours as is humanly possible.

DERF 9 and his ilk scare the daylights out of me when I'm on my motorcycle.  When I'm approaching an intersection and see someone going in the other direction, preparing to make a left turn while gesturing to the person with whom they're having a phone conversation, how do I know if they see me or not?  Obviously, the prudent motorcyclist assumes they don't -- and all too often, this is true.

I don't put too much stock in studies like the one that came out in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, which said that phoning while driving is almost as dangerous as drinking and driving.  Social-science studies are usually flawed, because the researchers invariably fail to control for all variables except the one they're trying to study.  But I don't need a study to tell you that when you're behind the wheel of a car, truck, minivan, or other motorized conveyance, your attention -- all of it -- should be on the task at hand, which is getting where you're going in one piece.

People like DERF 9 need to get their priorities in order and show some respect for other people's lives.  They may feel that their business is the most important thing in the world -- or maybe that it's the only important thing in the world -- but let's face it: there is plenty of time to do business once you get to the office.  While you're behind the wheel, the only business you should be attending to is safe driving!

Copyright © 1998 John J. Kafalas

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