Thanks to the recent passage of laws restricting cell phone use in cars, I can finally start to breathe normally again while driving. A growing body of research shows that even hands-free cell phones are potentially dangerous and cause automobile accidents. No matter how practical or fashionable they may be, cell phones are out of place in the driver's seat, and I'm grateful to our elected officials for finally tackling the problem.
Although the new laws are encouraging, I think there's more we can do to promote highway safety. My own modest research program --observing and occasionally filming other vehicles while I was driving up the freeway from San Diego to Los Angeles recently -- has revealed mobile threats to public safety every bit as dangerous as the mobile phone. Here is what I found:
In heavy traffic, I observed eight people typing on PDAs, three reading the newspaper, and one completing a crossword puzzle (it might have been Sudoku). It doesn't take a controlled study to know that it's impossible to drive properly while responding to text messages or reading the Los Angeles Times. I also filmed eleven female drivers and one male driver (just outside of Los Angeles -- possibly an actor) applying lipstick, eye shadow, foundation, mascara, or some combination thereof. While the camera did capture some impressive feats of dexterity, is the car really the proper place for applying makeup, and can one really control a vehicle while admiring one's reflection in a mirror?
I was even more alarmed when I passed a caravan of low-rider vehicles that were causing small earthquakes with their audio systems. My own car swerved noticeably as they passed, which made me wonder how less stalwart drivers would handle such a threat. And surrounded by all that noise, how were the drivers of those vehicles supposed to hear sirens, honking horns or cries for assistance? People who blast their stereo systems are deaf for all practical purposes and should be fined heavily. Come to think of it, why do we allow deaf people to drive?
Even talk radio can be distracting at times, especially when you're listening to a complete idiot who doesn't know what he or she is talking about. That can really make the blood boil, which in turn affects focus and coordination. Dr. Laura alone -- p'lease! her doctorate is in physiology, not psychology! -- has undoubtedly caused hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of needless injuries and deaths. The solution: a Tipper-Gore-style rating system for radio programming, with PD (Potentially Disturbing) talk-show hosts automatically muted.
Now this may sound like a joke, but it's deadly serious: we're all rightfully disgusted by drunk drivers, but Ronald McDonald probably causes more highway mishaps each year than Jack Daniel. The drive-thru restaurants in particular have introduced a host of truly heinous threats to highway safety, all of which should be banned from moving vehicles: hamburgers requiring more than one hand to hold (especially in vehicles with manual transmissions), fries so greasy you can barely grip the steering wheel, and super-sized Cokes that won't fit in the cup holders so you have to put them between your legs and try not to squeeze. And talk about hot coffee! Every year, thousands of innocent Americans lose their lives on our nation's roads because of gluttony, pure and simple.
I hesitate, in the name of good taste, to mention my concerns about kissing, cuddling and more aggressive sexual behaviors that are common in moving vehicles. Modesty -- and, I admit, some fear -- prevented me from observing suspicious occupants too closely, but in one instance my camcorder, which I had managed to hold high up on my window and slanting downward, did record a passenger's hand engaged in inappropriate activity where the over-sized drink is supposed to be.
But the most dangerous behaviors I observed were neither osculatory nor gustatory. They were conversational. This is where we need to get our legislators in gear, and quick. In a mere two-hour drive, I filmed no fewer than sixteen heated arguments. Sixteen! Some of the exchanges involved couples, but most involved parents tangling with -- well, let's not mince words -- disgusting brats. Arguing while driving? Extremely dangerous! If merely driving solo in the diamond lane can draw a $341 fine (where the hell did that number come from?), shouldn't arguing cost at least $682? Let's bite the bullet on this one, people, and do what needs to be done. How about confining drivers to small (green and efficient) vehicles that tow passengers behind them in sound-proof trailers? Let them yell and scream all they want! Existing vehicles can be retrofitted with limousine-style barriers isolating the driver from unruly passengers in the back, with the front-seat passenger space reserved for groceries and deaf-mutes who don't know sign language.
The latest cell phone research reminds us that any form of conversation is distracting, even when we're not arguing. Silence, people. If we want our highways and byways to be safe, we need to keep our obscene, obnoxious, burrito-and-soda-filled mouths shut.
Reprinted from The Journal of Irreproducible Results, March 2010, pp. 6-7.
The author of 15 books, ROBERT EPSTEIN is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. His most recent book is Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence (http://Teen20.com).