Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thoughts on Talking on the Phone, Texting, and/or Driving

On my ride home from work, I heard news that the NTSB is urging states to outlaw talking on the phone and texting while driving. They've investigated lots of accident scenes caused by "distracted drivers". I'm sure they investigate plenty of accidents caused by other reasons, but right now, talking on the phone and/or texting while driving has the nation's emotions high.

My friend asked me what I thought about that. I replied "There should be a law that no laws should be written or passed based solely on emotion. If anything, the emotions should die down so everything can be evaluated objectively before any decisions or plans are made." I also said that I don't believe all of the factors are being taken into account. I'm not defending texting while driving. That is dangerous. I'm not entirely convinced that talking on the phone while driving is as bad as claimed. Statistically, I'd like to see a comparison of people who do talk on the phone while driving compared to the number of people who cause accidents talking on the phone while driving. Chances are, there are plenty of other factors outside the phone. Like the person being a bad driver.

Apparently, this law will also take into account HANDS FREE talking while driving. That is, if it passes, you will no longer be able to use a BlueTooth headset or speakerphone while driving. Well, you can, but you can get pulled over and fined stiffly for it. I was a Realtor last year. I ran a large portion of my business from a BT headset and an iPhone 3G. I'm sure a lot of other people rely on a similar setup, and have driven successfully with no problems.

Outside of my Real Estate business last year, I rarely deal with the phone while driving. I just let it go to voice mail. But I’m not the world’s best phone talker.

If you honestly believe that a law banning talking on the phone while driving would make you a better driver, THEN JUST STOP TALKING ON THE PHONE WHILE YOU DRIVE. That's simple. If you think you can't drive and talk on the phone, that doesn't mean everybody else is in the same boat. Why would you support such a law when you can just stop doing it yourself? Are you waiting for a law before you stop?
Let's look at some of the factors involved in this issue. There are a lot of them.

Many people are bad drivers

This one needs little explanation. Spend some time on the road. You should know what I mean.

Drivers don't cooperate with each other

I work in northern Virginia and live in New Jersey. I spend plenty of time in traffic. I've studied traffic. I've come to some observations. Most traffic is caused by people who refuse to plan ahead, and won't cooperate with other drivers. For instance, if I know an exit is coming up, I get in the appropriate lane prior to the exit. If I see a lane closed ahead, I get out of that lane. And I'm punished for it. Other drivers shoot up the lane that is closed, then try to cut over. This causes more traffic, because the honest people like me now have to wait. If everybody planned ahead and just got over earlier, traffic would flow smoother.I've seen it work in places like Virginia and Texas where drivers aren’t as impatient as they are in New Jersey and Maryland. Of course, closing a lane during rush hour is really boneheaded and doesn't help.

New Jersey is a perfect example of drivers not cooperating. Most drivers in New Jersey just don't care. I have a theory that there are two kinds of drivers in New Jersey. Well, three. Two kinds and then me. The first kind of driver in New Jersey is somehow oblivious to the other cars on the road. They just don't see them. Maybe they're stupid, or blind, or their cell phone is blocking their blind spot; I don't know. They'll drift over into your lane on the highway at 45 miles an hour while you're doing 65. They don't notice you slamming on your brakes to avoid them. The other type of driver in New Jersey is an absolute asshole. Every decision they make behind the wheel is governed by the fact that they're an asshole. But it doesn't matter which type you're dealing with because they all drive the same. I hate New Jersey. I've hated it all 12 years I've lived in it. It's just not the place for me. And yes, I'm working very hard to get out of it. I'm sure I'll be missed.

It's already illegal in many states to talk on the phone and/or text and drive

New Jersey is one such state. You cannot talk on the phone in New Jersey (without a hands free device) and drive. And I seem to be the only person who knows this. I've seen police in New Jersey holding phones to their ears while they drive their police cars around. I've also seen a few people get pulled over. It's definitely not enforced universally.

The Mythbusters DID attempt to test this, but couldn't do a good job

I did see a Mythbusters episode where they tried to test whether talking on the phone while driving was more dangerous than drinking and driving. I'm not convinced they were able to test this well enough. They had police present, who would not allow them to drive past a .08 BAL. That was about two beers for Adam Savage. I don't remember what kind of beer. Probably a "light American lager" like Bud or Coors. 
The "experiment" did result in talking on the phone being more dangerous than driving. But again, this was only compared to 2 beers and being within the California legal limit. Try the experiment at night after a pizza and a 6 pack of Raging Bitch. I bet talking on the phone would come up as being a BUTTLOAD safer than drinking.

Will making it MORE illegal solve the problem?

No. I don't believe it will. Let's look at a few other things. For one, murder. It's been illegal to murder pretty much since before Cain killed Abel. Has there EVER been a time in the history of man when murder was not illegal? Has that ever stopped it? And yet, we keep making it MORE illegal to murder. Stiffer penalties, death penalties. Yeah, that's obviously solved the problem. We keep taking away weapons. Now, pre-schoolers are expelled from school for carrying safety scissors and plastic knives. That's stopped school shootings, obviously. Yeah, last week at Virginia Tech is perfect evidence that expelling teenage girls for plastic knives has finally made murder illegal ENOUGH.

If you live in a state like New Jersey where it's already illegal to talk on the phone (without hands free) and/or text while driving, and you still do it, can I ask you why? It's already illegal. Is it not illegal enough? Where is the cutoff? At what point will you decide that the risks exceed the rewards and STOP DOING IT?

Lets look at DUIs. We're constantly making it more illegal to drive while drinking. Or after having been drinking. New Jersey has some law that you can't drive while too tired. My kids are 54 weeks apart. I'm sure I skirted that law for the first several years of their lives. At what point do you think I would have just called work and said "Look, both kids haven't slept for 3 nights. I'm not coming to work because it isn't worth the death penalty?" You know what my employers would have said? What would yours say? Why don't you try it and leave a comment telling me how well it worked out for you.

The barrier to entry is way too low

It's not THAT hard to get or keep a driver's license. My friend mentioned Germany. I believe in Germany, it is very hard and very costly to get a driver's license (like more than $1000). I don't know the exact costs or qualifications. Nor do I feel like looking them up. I do remember the last time I was there in 1991. My mom started getting exchange students my Junior year in high school. Or first was a boy from Germany. His family invited me to spend part of the summer with them. I enjoyed it. During the summer, we went to visit one of his aunts, who was a nun. He commented that his aunt's drivers license stated she must drive automatic.
Wow. I love driving stick. In Europe, at least at that time, most people did drive stick. Having a rating on your driver's license stating that you have to drive automatic was like wearing a dunce cap. It was a serious, documented limitation.

But in the United States, once you get a license, you're pretty much good to go. Just send in your renewal every few years. If you change states, you may have to take a written test. No big deal. I got a Texas license when I was 17. I kept a Texas license until I was 25 when I got to New Jersey. I took a written test. I've had a New Jersey license since then. I'm 37 now. I've renewed twice. I just paid a fee and met the 6 points of documentation (Which is a severe pain in the crotch, but has more to do with how many documents I can find in my file cabinet rather than how well I can actually drive).

What do we do with this?

I'm not sure what to do with this. I've said, semi-facetiously, that old people should have to pass a practical driving exam every few years. If they can't do more than 15 mph, sorry, grandma, no driving for you. 
I'm serious. During my morning commute, I drive down the Prince William Parkway which turns into Old Bridge Road in Woodbridge, Virginia. (I like Virginia. Much better than New Jersey. Did I mention I hate New Jersey?). There is a car most mornings during the time I'm heading down Old Bridge Road that apparently is driven by an old person. It's an old people car like a Lincoln or Crown Vic (non-police type). The speed limit on that stretch of Old Bridge Road is 45 MPH. This car, if you're LUCKY, is doing a full 30, but often goes back and forth between 15 and 30. You're stuck behind it until you hit the shopping center it turns into. The other cars are flying around you at 45 or more. I hate getting stuck behind that geezer. I wish the cops would pull that person over and take away his or her license.

I've joked that if I were God, driving too slow would be the "unpardonable sin". Think about it. Let's say you're the slow driver. I'm just trying to get to work, and you're nothing but a rolling wall, seemingly going nowhere and preventing me from getting where I need to go.

This goes with the "drivers don't cooperate" heading above. Each driver is concerned with nothing more outside of his or her car.

So again, what do we do?

Higher barrier to entry?

I'm not entirely sure I like this, for the simple reason of: who would administer it? Though I believe it's a little too easy to get and keep a driver's license, I hate the DMV (especially in New Jersey). Even if it led to a slightly more pleasant driving experience to get some of the incompetents off the road, I would not want to deal with the red tape and inefficient bureaucracy of the DMV. I would NOT recommend this solution unless we could find a better way than the DMV to carry it out.

But, we have some factors in America that make it less attractive to not drive

Like, our public transportation sucks

Seriously, our public transportation in America sucks. Let me give you a real world example. I live approximately 30 miles from where I work. I can drive it in a little more than a half hour. Taking the bus would cost me about $6 each way and take more than an hour and a half. That's about $12 and three or more hours a day taking the bus both ways, versus about an hour and $6 in gas if I just drive my own car. But in the Washington D.C. area, we have a program called "slugging". I drive 7 miles to a slug lot, park my car, and get a ride with somebody else. You need 2 passengers to get in the HOV lane, so it's a fair trade. When I drive, I stop and pick up slugs. Still, it's faster and far cheaper than the bus.

When I bought my house in New Jersey, I worked in Moorestown. My house is about 18 miles from Moorestown. It would have taken me more than 4 hours EACH WAY to take the bus, versus about a half hour drive. Which would you choose? (And probably far more in bus fare than gas, even with the piece of crap Kia Sedona I had, the far worst gas-mileage car I've ever owned).

Also, our zoning sucks

It was decided at one point, I believe post World War II when suburbs became a thing, that residential, commercial, and industrial would never mix. And so, we have residential neighborhoods. We have commercial districts. And we have industrial districts. Combine this with our crap public transportation infrastructure, and you CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT A CAR.

When I first moved to New Jersey, I found an apartment within 2 miles of work. A bad commute was when I hit all three lights. But, in 1999, I was paying $730 a month for a tiny one bedroom apartment. When my lease was up in 2000, the rent would have gone to $760 if I'd renewed. It would have been more than $900 on a month to month. Forget that. I took that same amount of money and bought a condo 8 miles from work. Purchase price: $65,000. My mortgage was only a little more than my rent, and I had 2 bedrooms and a lot more space. Then I met somebody. That somebody forbids me from mentioning their existence. I have no idea how I'm supposed to comply with that, but I'll try. In any case, meeting that somebody motivated me to get a house. That involved moving even farther away. Houses close to work cost more than twice as much as the house we eventually bought (and still own, trapping me in New Jersey until the housing market recovers).

That's part of why I live 30 miles from work in Virginia. I found a good deal renting a basement. I pay $500 a month for pretty much everything but a full kitchen. I couldn't rent close to work for less than $2500 a month. I even tried to find a room to rent close by. Not possible. I'm also close to a friend in Woodbridge. I like this neighborhood, and when I can finally escape from New Jersey, this is the neighborhood I want to live in, if the somebody who cannot be named in my blog posts or other intellectual property likes it too.

Last point: WE'RE NOT EUROPE!

People like to mention Europe like it's a good thing. Is it? I remind you that this nation (America) exists in large part because of people who did not want to be Europeans.

That doesn't stop people from bringing it up though. Complain about gas prices? "Well, in Europe, they pay more than $10 a gallon!" So what? Actually, they sell "petrol" in liters. So it's probably more per gallon. Again, so what? What is that supposed to mean to me? That's their own lack of natural resources and bad policies and taxes. Am I supposed to feel bad for them and purposely pay more for gas as some sort of penance because gas costs more in Europe? Get lost. I'm tired of hearing it. If you're so infatuated with Europe, go live there.

Yes, I have. My dad is retired Air Force. I was born in Spain. We lived in Germany from 1980-1985. I went back to Germany in the summer of 1991. Then I joined the Navy and drank my way around the Pacific Rim. That's no reason to have to pay more for things just because they cost more somewhere else. 
Europe does have better public transportation and better zoning. When I stayed with that family in Germany in 1991, the father got up every morning and walked down the street to a bakery to buy fresh Brotchen. (It has an umlaut over the O. Not sure how to get that in this client). That means fresh bread. Every day. Do you live close enough to a bakery to walk there for fresh bread EVERY DAY? I didn't think so. Neither do I. 

They also lived right across the street from their school. When we lived in Germany, that was the only time I was ever close enough to conveniently walk to school, because our apartment building in base housing was across the street from the school. When I went to Kindergarten and 1st grade in Florida prior to moving to Germany, I had to take a bus to the base school. When we moved to Texas, I was in 6th grade. You had to live 2 miles or more from school to get on the bus. That 2 mile line was literally 3 houses down the street from us. I could not ride the bus. My mom had to drive me to school for a while, then I got a bike and/or walked. I had to take a bus to high school.

At my Basement Command Post in Virginia, I'm about 2 miles from a grocery store. Yeah, good exercise, not not quite good enough for a daily walk. In New Jersey, I can walk to a Wawa and back in about an hour. Again, not quite good enough for a daily. There is a convenience store within somewhat of a walking distance, but their prices are high. It's easier and cheaper to just drive to Wal-mart and back to get the things we need.

Again, our zoning and public transportation in America suck. We've set up a society that REQUIRES cars.

So where does that leave us? Again, I'm not convinced that talking on the phone while driving is quite the enemy. I think bad driving is far more of a threat. But I'm not sure how to fix that. I know that passing laws based only on emotion is a very bad idea. And we can’t survive without cars.
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