Handsfree - But Not Distraction-Free

June 9, 2005
It shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that handsfree cell phones are still distracting for drivers, even if they're not the wheel-and-phone juggling act that conventional mobiles inspire.

No, what's surprising are two things: that people are occasionally capable of talking and driving and doing even more behind the wheel, and that some drivers (me included, sometimes) think it's our business what we do behind the wheel.

You've seen my first point in action. I see Emory profs, UPS drivers and other commuters every day here, one hand on the phone held to their ear, one alternating between the steering wheel and the radio's seek button. Some of these folks have DVDs playing the car. (How else would I ever get to see the Kill Bill movies? I sure wouldn't pay for the privilege.) And many have books in their hand, or work papers, or receipts. You get the picture. The accident rate, meanwhile, continues to drop when accounted for by miles driven.

The second point is a little scarier to contemplate, but my opinion is that it's none of your business what happens until the point where my fender scrapes into yours. Drivers are distracted every moment behind the wheel - by signs for directions they'll never take, by commercials on the radio with inanely memorable jingles. Sometimes the distraction keeps them from falling asleep. Or getting angry at stupid maneuvers. A cell phone conversation isn't any different from other conversations in a car.

Here's how I'd write any laws concerning phones, TVs, camcorders, celebrity lookalikes, or anything else you need in the car to keep you happy and safe on the way there. Do what you want, so long as you and your kids are belted in. Your hands need to stay on the wheel or the shifter or it's reckless driving. And if you run into someone or something because you were dialing, or changing channels, or singing, it's a double penalty for not waiting to do it when it's safe, when you're in the far right lane, or when you're home free.

It sure would push automakers to put steering-wheel controls--some of the cheapest safety gear around -- in more of their vehicles. And think of all the people who would learn to dial with their toes!

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