Monday, May 24, 2010

California's Ban on Driving With Cell Phones - A Slap in the Face

Have you ever wanted to slap a police officer in the face? Or your kids? Or another driver on the road? Here's your chance to do least, metaphorically. Stay tuned and I'll tell you how.

But, first, let me start by saying I was out running this morning. Okay, jogging. Okay, ambling, really. I was safely on the sidewalk racing towards an intersection...okay, plodding towards an intersection. I had the green light to cross, but a Lexus waiting to turn right on the red was blocking the crosswalk. At the wheel of the Lexus was an otherwise intelligent looking thirty-something woman who had absolutely no idea I was coming. Now, most people who don't want blood, skin and other traceable human DNA samples splattered on the grill of their luxury cars take the time to look up and down the sidewalk before accelerating through a crosswalk. Not this bird. I couldn't blame her for not seeing me, though. After all, she was quite busy talking on her cell phone. Not, by the way, handsfree. She was chatting away while holding the phone up to her ear. That logs her at the top of my list of bottom dwellers, especially since anyone who runs, bikes, walks, drives or breathes encounters these people on a daily basis. My typical calm, cool, mature reaction would be to run right up to the car, not quite in front of it and, when she takes off without looking, I would knock on the fender and scare the gossip out of her. I didn't do that this morning for one simple reason. I couldn't take the chance she would actually hit me because I wasn't wearing clean underwear. Yes, despite the fact that I'm a grown man with three kids of my own, I couldn't bear to hear my mother say "I told you so" when she arrived at the hospital and heard the nurse and doctor talking about my dirty drawers. So, I let this woman go...and she never once looked my way. Never had the slightest clue that if I had been a less attentive eight year old or a passive aggressive adult with clean underwear, she could have easily ended a life.

Six miles later...okay, half a mile later...I was approaching another pedestrian danger zone-the dreaded homeowner blindly backing out of their driveway. Now, these people don't get my fender rap. For no-look driveway backer-outers, I reserve the "arms thrown up in the air" and the "what the f" look. They seem to respond to it. Not always amicably. In fact, never amicably. But, I wasn't going to employ that tactic in this case, because the driver about to back out was an elderly woman who looked like she should have had her license revoked for senility eight years ago. I didn't want a heart attack on my hands. Plus, I would have had to wait around for the paramedics and miss my son's school play. But, guess what? I didn't need the look anyway. This woman peered down the street both ways...and saw me. Before even taking her car out of park, she smiled and politely waved me on, then waited until I safely passed until she proceeded to back out of her driveway.

So, what gives? How is it that a senile woman who's probably shaking off a long night's sleep courtesy of Ambien with a morning dose of Xanax chased down by two cups of Maxwell House coffee turns out to be a better, more vigilant, safer driver than a healthy, active, professional woman in her prime? It's the cell phone. And that brings me to my point.

As of July 1, 2008, California drivers were banned from using cell phones without a handsfree device while operating a moving vehicle.

The plan was to save lives. Not a bad plan. The problem is, it didn't work. A recent study by the National Institute For Highway Safety determined that the law has had no effect whatsoever in reducing crashes. Before the ban, California had 8 crashes per 100 vehicles. A year after the law went into effect, we had 7.5 crashes per 100 vehicles. Now, I'm not trying to negate the value of that half a person whose life might have been saved in that half a crash reduction. In fact, it could have been me. After all, my wife would be eager to tell you I'm half the man I was twenty years ago. The thing is, the half a crash reduction corresponded to a similar reduction in accidents in neighboring states that didn't enact a cell phone law. So, the statistics show that the cell phone ban had no impact whatsoever.

What's the deal? Some would say people are just ignoring the law. They'd be right. And, let's face it, with a $20 fine for a first offense, no one is waking up in a cold sweat at 3:00 a.m. worried the fabric of their family's financial foundation will be torn asunder by a cell phone fine. I mean, $20 will barely buy you two iced coffee drinks at Starbucks. Or a gallon of gas once the Gulf oil spill works it's way through the economy.

And process this-you can be fined up to $1000 for a first time littering offense. Apparently a gum wrapper on the side of the road is more of a threat to society than a distracted, reckless featherbrain behind the wheel of a two ton moving vehicle. (Wipe that smug smile off your face, litterers of all things non-biodegradable, your day of reckoning is coming in a future blog.)

There's a story told by Nasreddin Hodja, the ancient Turkish mystic, that sums up our law perfectly. Hodja was standing in the marketplace when a perfect stranger slapped him in the face. Hodja took the stranger to the Qadi-a judge ruling in accordance with Islamic religious law-and demanded compensation. As the proceedings unfolded, Hodja began to suspect that the stranger and the judge were friends. His suspicions were confirmed when the stranger admitted guilt and was handed down a fine of one piaster. Further, the judge granted the defendant the leeway to go get the piaster and bring it back to Hodja at his own convenience. The defendant left and Hodja waited...and waited...and waited. After a length of time had passed, Hodja approached the Qadi and asked, "Do I understand correctly that one piaster is sufficient payment for a slap?" The judge answered, "yes." Hodja then slapped the judge in the face and said, "You may keep my piaster when the defendant returns with it."

Hodja's humorous wisdom aside, that's the California cell phone law. The fine is so minimal that drivers would rather slap police officers, their fellow drivers, the State of California and their passengers in the face than put down their phones in the name of safety. These people either just don't realize the danger...or they just don't care. Either option places them squarely in the beans for brains category.

Now, I have my own opinions of those who ignore the law, but I'll keep my thoughts to myself because I'm sure they're all very nice people (self-centered, arrogant posers.) They're probably all outstanding citizens (who drown puppies for pleasure.) I doubt any of them would ever harm a fly (only a carload of babies.) And besides, who amongst us hasn't held a cellphone up to their ear during the most pressing of meaningless conversations? (Me and millions of other drivers.)

So, yes, I'll keep my opinions of those who flaunt the law to myself (I bet they kiss with their eyes open.) But, I would argue for the usage of hands free devices from an entirely different point of view. Not a legal one. A practical one.

We all know that anyone can drive with one hand. But, if one hand is tied up holding a phone to your head, then you unequivocally give up your ability to use your other hand for the important things in safe driving-like drinking coffee, turning up the radio, throwing water bottles at the kids in the back seat, applying make-up, eating tacos, sending a car fax or flipping off the driver next to you who almost sideswiped you because he was holding a cell phone up to his ear. All of these are rights and privileges we've earned as drivers but, so help me Buddha, we flush every one of them down the toilet when we tie up one hand with a cell phone. (Yes, I know most California drivers can use two hands to eat a Double-Double Burger and drink Diet Coke while steering with their knees-but, for legal liability reasons, I'm going to avoid that recommendation here.)

So you see, I'm not dismissing the fact that we live in a car culture and require access to a full array of amenities in our vehicles. If you think about it, most people spend more time in their cars than in church. But you wouldn't carry a ticking time bomb into church. That's what you do when you hold a cell phone up to your ear while driving. You know who you are, people. What you don't know is when the crash is going to happen. But, as sure as Justin Bieber will join the forgotten ranks of Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett, it very likely is going to happen. It's just a matter of time.

So, for the love of runners, bikers, walkers and wide-eyed babies everywhere, I'm asking all of you common sense challenged chatty-cheetahs to put your phones down and get a handsfree device once and for all. Do it today. If that's too much of an effort for you, then remember this. When you do finally cause that accident, whether a fender bender or major pile-up, the rest of us law-abiding drivers will take great satisfaction in knowing that your cellphone bill will prove irrefutably that you were trading party dip recipes over the cellular network at the exact time of the accident. When a gum wrapper tossed out a car window can do that, I'll slap myself in the face.

John R Trujillo

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