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Calling some attention to a possible distraction (english)
09 Jun 2003
A law regulating cell phone use should make the libertarian hackles on the back of my pencil-neck stand up. When it comes to cell phones, though, I admit to being torn.
Calling some attention to a possible distraction
Andrew Silva,, June 08, 2003

It took me about six seconds to dial a seven-digit number on my cell phone while sitting at my desk.That's really slow, but I'm sure it's even longer when I'm struggling to find those itty bitty numbers while trying to keep those protruding heavy pipes on that flatbed in front of me from piercing my windshield.

At 70 mph, in the time it takes to dial a number, I will have covered at least two football fields.

Last week, the Assembly passed AB 45, which would prohibit drivers from holding their cell phones while talking. If it passes the Senate, you could get whacked for $20 on a first offense, and $50 for each offense thereafter.

You'd be required to use hands-free accessories, either headsets or some kind of speaker phone or that nearly invisible, weird little wire with the marble-sized mouthpiece you stick in your ear that makes you look like a 5150 walking down the street muttering to yourself. Fifty-one-fifty is cop lingo for nutcase.

But there would be no prohibition against dialing, during which your eyes are only marginally on the road.But maybe that's OK, and conversely maybe the headset requirement is worthless because studies seem to indicate it's the conversation itself that is the distraction, not clutching the phone with one hand.

There's the oft-cited 1997 New England Journal of Medicine article in which a study indicated talking on a cell phone is about equal to driving while drunk. A small study by the University of Utah "demonstrates that the phone conversation itself resulted in significant slowing in response to simulated traffic signals, as well as an increase in the likelihood of missing those signals.' There was no difference in performance for those using hands-free technology and those holding the phone, the study found. One study last year suggested one in 20 crashes involve someone talking on a cell phone.

Does that mean you shouldn't be allowed to use your phone at all while driving?

This whole issue wasn't such a big deal when cell phones were largely the pricey toys of those self-important smarmy business dudes in Beemers. Remember when they even sold fake pig-tail antennas you could stick on your back window so you too could imitate a yuppie who was too important to be out of touch?

But now you're just as likely to see twentysomethings, teens, heck, everybody with one hand on the wheel and the other pressed up against their ear. More than 100 million of those chirping, La Bamba-playing little communication devices are in our hot, busy, little hands.

First, I admit to being the most boring, no-fun-at-all, friendless, burnt-out, bitter bag of old bones you've ever met. Just ask my wife. Meaning I can't figure out what the heck is everyone talking about all the time on those things. I can understand the business professional on the move. "What do you mean those 200 units haven't shipped yet? The dog ate the purchase orders? We don't have a dog at the plant, you pinhead!'

And being absolutely clueless about the lives of modern young people, who actually have lives, and get to be in touch with their friends 24/7 in the store, the bank, and their cars, I can't imagine what happens after "Hey girlfriend, what's up?' Well, obviously a lot of people have a lot to say.

The momentum for some kind of cell phone restrictions is clearly building. Also last week, the National Transportation Safety Board suggested that rookie drivers be prohibited from using cell phones. And then there are the heart-wrenching stories of folks who have lost children or other loved ones because some jerk was too busy on his cell phone to notice a stop sign. Take a look at, but have a box of tissues handy.

Those are hard to ignore, but does that mean we need a law? And if so, what kind?

A law regulating cell phone use should make the libertarian hackles on the back of my pencil-neck stand up. I hate stupid laws, or redundant laws that politicians pass just for publicity. When it comes to cell phones, though, I admit to being torn. Should they also write me a ticket while I'm munching my Big Mac, or trying to figure which station my ancient dysfunctional radio is tuned to?

Maybe they should. Maybe cell phone restrictions take one more threat out of the mix, and regardless of the reason or motivation, that's a good thing.

In my case, the cell phone is a recent addition to my belt and gets used less than once a day. That probably makes me more dangerous because I have to figure the darn thing out every time. And for some incredibly stupid reason I decided to move the usual end-of-the-day conversation from my desk, where the biggest danger is having an editor sneak up and give me some annoying assignment, to the freeway.

"I'm on my way home. What do you want for dinner?'

"I don't know. What do you want?'

"I don't know. It all sounds gross.'

"Well then, just come home and we'll figure it out later.'

"But that means I'll have to go out again later.'

"Then just pick something.'

"Don't yell at me.'

"Well, don't yell at me.'

"I'm not yelling.'

"Neither am I.'


"Del Taco again?"


I can't honestly tell you how distracted I am by that little conversation while attempting to watch what's happening on the freeway around me. I do know trying to dial scares me, and that I should go back to making that call from my desk before I leave. And I hate to admit it, but I've also gotten spoiled by the convenience.

Now when an editor pages me, I don't have to pull off to find a pay phone in front of some liquor store where I wonder if the guys in the parking lot are just hanging out or looking for an easy target. I can answer the editors' questions on the fly.

"Hey, I think you misspelled the mayor's name. Isn't it with a 'K?''

"No, it's correct the way I have it, with a 'C.' That's C-R-O-O-K.'

But in debating convenience and popularity versus safety, maybe the old line that goes something like this applies: The right to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. Perhaps your right to yak on the phone while piloting a 3,000-pound rolling mass of steel and plastic, stops where my sheet metal, and my family, begin.
See also:,1413,208~28097~1443985,00.html
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