Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I'll admit up front that this post is not technically Jewish, but it's something that's been on my mind for a while. And, since Judaism places such an intensely high value on Pikuach Nefesh, the requirement to save a life, whenever possible, I can feel justified about posting it. At the risk of being melodramatic, this really could save your life.

A couple of days ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released research which reconfirms what several other studies have shown in the past few years: talking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous. In fact, it seems to be the statistical equivalent of having a .08 Blood Alcohol Level - the legal limit here in Florida. You are 4 times more likely to be in an accident if you're talking on the phone while driving than if you're not.

Now, here's the part that really gets people: it makes essentially no difference if you use a hand-held phone or a hands-free phone. Talking on a earpiece or via a Bluetooth speaker does not, in any way, make you safer. It's not about the use of your hands; it's about the distraction*.

* there is a side issue here which I find fascinating. These results are not new, but when I've brought them up before, people always reject them. Tell a normal, smart person that talking hands-free is just as dangerous as hand-held, and they'll often tell you that you're wrong. Tell them that there is science to back that up, and they'll deny it, or claim it doesn't apply to them, or say that the science is wrong, without ever looking at it. Think about that the next time someone claims that people are essentially logical.

I rarely talk on the phone while driving, but I do it sometimes. Several times, I've claimed that I won't do it any more, but I always make exceptions - just a quick call home, on a road I know well. No big deal, right? Well, maybe I'll be better if I do this publicly: I hereby promise and declare (our religion forbids me to swear, so I won't do it) that I will no longer use a cell phone while driving. I won't do it a little. I won't do it for a moment. Nothing I have to say is worth quadrupling my chances of being in an accident. It can wait.

But, here's where things get really sticky. If I was sitting in a car, and the driver pulled out a beer, would anyone begrudge me the right to say, "Please stop that. It's incredibly unsafe, and it makes me wildly uncomfortable"? Would anyone call me insane if I insisted on getting out of the car, right then and there, no matter where we were? How about this - would you think I was nuts if I chastised you for drinking and driving, even if I wasn't in the car with you? Probably not. But, what about with a phone? Don't I now, given what we know, have the right to ask others to not use the phone while I'm in the car? And, if a friend or loved-one calls me from the car, isn't it only friendly and loving for me to say, "This really isn't safe. Please give me a call when you're not driving, ok?" I've thought about doing that many times, but I've never been brave enough. I feel like a nudnick - like an annoying zealot.

Look, I'm sorry to be a pest, but we have to face reality. If you talk on the phone while driving, you are putting yourself, and others, in danger. No matter why you think it's not true, it is. Put down the phone, and get home safely.


Steve F said...

I was amazed at these findings and I do talk and drive frequently. My experience has been that the hands free setups (whether built in or on your ear)do help as I can keep both hands on the wheel and personally don't feel as distracted. In the past months I have noticed a great increase in people talking and driving and have been aware of their inability to do both -that is why I strive to always use my headset (strive but not perfect). I still feel that, like other states, FL should adopt the Hands Free legislation - anything that makes cellphones and driving illegal won't pass! In the end, I agree with the concept of not talking and driving as most folks are not good at one of those already.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Steve - but, the whole point of the article (well, one of them) was that you aren't safer with a hands-free setup. You feel safer, but that's a very different thing. I've met people who swear that they're better drivers after having a drink or two, and I'll bet that they could pass a lie-detector test about that. They really believe they drive better while buzzed. But, their experience of that sensation doesn't mean that the sensation is true. Point being, my friend, you are no safer hands-free!

The more I think about it, the more I'm against Hands Free legislation. Because, once that's passed, it makes it harder to even contemplate more comprehensive legislation, and it seems clear that that's exactlty what we need!

StefWiss said...

I have to admit, this is one of my worst foibles (not sure I am using the word correctly but i like how it sounds). I do it more times then i like to admit. I have even noticed several times missing a turn while talking on the phone realizing (with a bit of horror) that i hadn't been paying attention enough to see that I was not going where i needed to go.

This gives me lots to process. I think it is time to prioritize my tasks. Do I really need to be chatting with friends about inane stuff while driving on the road (on which there are drivers not paying attention either)?

msands said...

That research is correct and has been replicated many times (I'd be shocked if there's a single auto insurer in the nation that doesn't have their own commissioned study saying exactly the same thing). It was even brought up here in California during the debate on our own hands-free law, in place now for over a year. That law has had, as far as I know, no impact on road safety. But never let facts or logic get in the way of a good cause!

All that said, the question still remains whether any of this will change my personal behavior. I actually don't talk (that much) on the phone while driving. No, I do something much, much worse: I regularly -- routinely even -- read *and respond* to business emails on my iPhone while driving. Oh, I tell myself that it's just while I'm at a stoplight or somesuch, but that's BS. I do it all the time. I do it at 70 mph (*cough*) on the freeway. I do it at night when the glare from the screen momentarily washes out my night vision. I do it with my kids in the car. To stop, I'd literally have to lock my iPhone in the trunk. And it may indeed come to that. Then again, maybe not.

Addiction is a strange thing, no?