Column on Cell Phone Hazards

The Cell Phone Hazard

Tibor R. Machan

For a while now I have been observing all the alarm about the use of cell phones while driving a car, truck, bus, etc. And there is hardly any doubt that doing so is hazardous. In his essay for The New York Times, Monday, December 7, 2009, Matt Richtel chronicles some of this and reports, among other matters, that "Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes. “’If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,’ said Mr. Lucky, now 73. ‘If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money’." Mr. Richtel goes back even further and reports how worries about the safety of using cell phones while driving goes back to the 1960s!

Mr. Lucky’s line of reasoning is, of course, the favorite one to produce about those who defend some private industry–what they do is mainly to recklessly promote their own economic interests, never mind safety, never mind the interest of customers, never mind good sense–just pursue profit and be done with it.

But this is a caricature, born of cynical theory not of real life. While of course most people first think of how something will help them with their own projects and the pursuit of their own goals, there is nothing in this that shows their indifference to and neglect of other concerns, some of them indeed having to do with how other people are affected.

In the ongoing concern with the use of hand-held and hands free cell phone use while driving a car, the focus seems to be all on what such use does to one’s driving and the comparison is nearly always between such use and no distractions at all. But what about the possibility that cell phone use in cars may not be any more hazardous than, say, changing CDs or cassette tapes, tucking in the baby in the back, checking the map, looking for something in the glove compartment, or having a heated discussion with one’s passenger, while driving one’s vehicle. Indeed, this is probably true but not easily tested and confirmed (or dis-confirmed).

Imposing restrictions on drivers concerning these other possible distractions would, no doubt, be somewhat problematic since all those are mainly personal distractions and no big industry can be held complicit. Deep pockets are missing there, too. Instead these other distractions seem quite normal, just part of life on the road and have been with us since automobile and similar vehicle use itself has been.

Not that I have had the chance to make a thorough comparison except in my own case where I have found that using a cell is, yes, hazardous but then so is checking out one’s driving directions, looking for a house number (especially at night), examining a map, going through a personal address or phone book, etc., etc., and so forth. All such activities, while driving, require attention and concentrating on driving at the same time can be challenging; since doing so is not on everyone’s agenda as a general rule, why expect something different from people when they have the option to use their cell phones while they are driving?

Forgive me my suspicious nature, but am I seeing here, once again, the eagerness of some political and bureaucratic types to rush in an micromanage us all? Given how silent they appear to be about how cell phone use in cars compares with all those other, more customary distractions, I think my suspicion isn’t ill founded. A word to the wise should suffice–it may not be about safety as much as it is about control, about the age old government habit.

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