For me, it started and ended on the subway.
One day while I waited impatiently for a train I noticed a woman weaving down the platform. She was engrossed with something on her smart phone and just as she passed me she stumbled and nearly fell over the edge and onto the tracks.
In Manhattan, strolling down the sidewalk is a competitive sport. Those who cant walk and talk on their cell phones are likely to receive NHL-caliber body checks. So I thought the woman on the subway platform was lucky and chalked up her distraction to a relatively new toy, akin to those who fell off the first bicycles or ran the first cars off a dirt road. Then I saw a recent study about cell phone use and driving.
For over two years, it has been illegal in New York State to use a hand-held cellular telephone to engage in a call while driving, “pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1225c.” So the only way you can legally make a call in a car is if you have a hands-free unit or you are parked. Anecdotally, I noticed that in New York City drivers seemed to flaunt the law with impunity. Every day, women on cell phones steering SUVs nearly run over the children they are supposed to be picking up. Every evening, men gabbing on handsets and trying to manage a right turn and a manual shift behind the wheel of Porsches nearly plow over pedestrians in crosswalks. Just lawless NYC, I thought. Then came the study.
Conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety the study found that when the New York cell phone law was first introduced in 2001 the number of drivers using cell phones dropped from 2.3 to 1.1 percent. However, just 15 months later, New Yorkers where chattering away again with cell phone handset use behind the wheel climbing back up to 2.1 percent.
Granted there is some small debate about whether handset users cause more accidents, but the debate is small indeed. Dont tell me there are greater distractions in the car. Of course there are, but thats not the point. We cant do anything about bickering spouses or rowdy kids. And of course, cell phones used in an emergency on the road doubtless save lives.
But anyone who traverses the highways around NYC can tell you that handset users also block more traffic than the Thanksgiving Day parade and create more hazards than an ice storm. I myself log about 500 miles a week behind the wheel and witness my share of drivers with handsets blocking the Hutchinson River Parkway passing lane and making dangerous lane changes. No matter what, people insist on clutching their phones, echoing Hestons “from my cold dead hands” refrain. So the question is, why are people so blatantly flaunting the law?
According to the Insurance Institute report it is not because theres no enforcement. During the same period that the study covers about 100,000 tickets for cell phone use were issued. The penalty ranges from $54 to $1,000. Granted, you can get a stiffer fine for parking illegally in Manhattan.
So if its not a lack of enforcement, why do people continue to weave and talk?
The reason, I think, that most people ignore the law is a lack of easy wireless solutions. Corded earpieces with built-in microphones are fine if youre thinking of joining the secret service, but they are awkward and behind the wheel the cord is a nuisance and a danger (have you ever tried to make a quick shift with the cord dangling between your hand and second gear?)
Whats needed are wireless hands-free solutions, such as the Logitech Mobile Bluetooth Headset. Ive found it to be surprising comfortable and unobtrusive. There are even some cars that come with built-in Bluetooth speaker phones. Hondas Acura TL models can work with Bluetooth phones, and its an option on Toyotas Prius and Daimlerchryslers Pacifica. The problem is that there arent enough Bluetooth enabled cell phones available. Even the latest Microsoft-backed Motorola smart phone Im currently testing doesnt include Bluetooth support.
Why? As the folks at Cellon, a growing handset design and outsourcing firm explained to me recently, carriers in the U.S. simply will not pay for any features that dont increase voice or data traffic. And since the carriers essentially underwrite the cost of phones here, Bluetooth is a feature they are not willing to pay for. (Cameras, on the other hand, are an excellent way to drive data traffic.)
Now, the Bluetooth SIG will tell you that things are picking up. More products are expected to come out this year that include Bluetooth support. Analysts at Gartner confirm this, reporting that shipments of Bluetooth equipped devices are expected to rise by about 60 percent this year. But thats not enough to make a dent in the distracted driver problem anytime soon. The technology has to be as pervasive and easy to use as the cell phones themselves.
The only way that will happen is if larger enterprises insist that their fleets are equipped with the wireless technology and that the phones they hand their employees come with Bluetooth. Yes, I know there are some security issues (look for more on “Bluesnarfing” here next week), but the danger is miniscule compared to the human cost.
Sadly, the place where I began wondering about the cell phone problem turned out to be the location for its coda as well. One afternoon last week, 19-year-old Lina Villegas was struck and killed in Queens by a Manhattan bound subway train. According to witnesses, she had climbed down onto the tracks to retrieve her cell phone. With the gallows humor typical of many metropolitan areas, many New Yorkers quipped that it just showed the extent to which people have become addicted to their cell phones, no matter what the danger. Me, I just thought of the woman who almost fell off of the platform in front of me.