Monday, July 27, 2009

Driving And The Compulsion Of The Cell Phone

The most arresting image in this recent New York Times story on cell phones and driving comes at the end: a man, whose son was recently killed by a driver on a cell phone, says that although he is committed to not talking on the phone while driving, he finds it impossible to resist.

He has to put the phone in the trunk not to use it on the road. As he says, "With all the motivation in the world I couldn’t do it."

The story focuses on the increasing data showing that talking on the phone -- whether on a hands-free device or on an ordinary phone -- causes people to have more accidents. You'd think this would create a national outcry of some sort. After all, when people drive, they don't just put themselves at risk, they put others at risk, including kids, who never even got to choose for themselves whether to be in the stupid car or not.

It's weird. Most people will say that among the most important things in the world is the health and safety of children. The leading cause of death among children 5-9 years old is auto accidents. Talking on the phone is shown to increase the risk of those accidents. You'd think if people were thinking clearly they'd cool it with the phone already, not to mention, of course texting while driving (!) which is even more dangerous.

Their reluctance cries out for explanations beyond the usual suspects. I mean, I get that people feel they have work to do or something but seriously, if you went around saying, "There's this chemical I want to put in the drinking water that will make my job more convenient but it's going to kill some children every year. Too bad for that but I gotta get my work done," it would sound ridiculous. Nobody would buy this explanation.

In the Times story, the scientists who study this behavior say there are two reasons people find it so very hard to give up their phones while behind the wheel. One is the "intense social pressure" to be constantly connected, and the other is that we are really f***ing bored most of the time and so we find the brain stimulation associated with phoning just completely impossible to resist.

I am skeptical about the "intense social pressure" hypothesis. I mean, doesn't everyone do lots of activities that are incompatible with answering the phone? Bathing, for instance? Working? Having sex? How can it be a big deal if you let someone leave a message and get back to them?

The "boredom" hypothesis, though, I think is spot on. As Britney Spears so eloquently pointed out recently, ordinary life is really monotonous and boring. And driving is especially boring. At least, it is if you're doing it right.

One of the scientists cited says it's a particularly modern problem we have, that "the modern brain is being rewired to crave stimulation." He calls this "acquired attention deficit disorder." Probably there's something to this, though I tend to think it's also just human nature to want more stimulation. I don't have a car, myself, and when I do drive, I find it pretty easy to avoid talking on the phone. On the other hand, I find the internet so distracting that to concentrate, I often physically take my laptop to where I have no internet access. It's like the philosophers' equivalent of putting the cell phone in the trunk; everyone finds it hard to just sit quietly and do their thing.

Speaking of which, this is actually an excellent idea, putting the phone in the trunk. If you miss a call, and the person has to leave a message, you can always tell them you couldn't answer because you were busy saving the nations' children -- by not answering the stupid phone.

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