Monday, December 26, 2011

Smokin’ and Talkin’ and Textin’ While Drivin’

I stopped smoking a few years ago. These days, while driving, I sometimes answer my cell phone or make calls.

Last week, Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, gave an impassioned plea for drivers to stop using cell phones while driving.

I know she’s right. Using the cell phone while driving is distracting and dangerous. I also know that “Just Say NO” doesn’t work to change people’s behavior.

Matt Richtel in his New York Times article “Reframing the Debate Over Using Phones Behind the Wheel” unpacked some of the motivators that make cell phones so compelling.

Like smoking, being able to communicate anywhere may have a cool factor like smoking had years ago. Cell phones relieve restlessness and boredom. The compulsion is powerful: “People do not know when an urgent or interesting e-mail or text will come in, so they feel compelled to check it all the time.”

We are social animals. “The ring of a phone or the ping of text becomes a promise of human connection.” Information has a value that is lost over time. Answer it now; send it now.

Consider this a good social marketing exercise to think about what it will take to change societal values and behaviors surrounding using cell phones while driving.

How about a technology fix  that would block cell phone signals while a vehicle is in motion? That would stop cell phone use but also insure that my family and friends would choose never to ride with me.

Tough laws, enforcement and education have worked in effecting changes in drunk driving, seat belt and helmet laws.

As a smoker, I heard all the health reasons to stop smoking. Shown all the ways second-hand smoke hurt those around me. Figured out how much the habit was costing me. I’m sure there were smokers who quit for those reasons. I quit but not for any of those reasons but quit because it was something my father wanted me to do and, after he passed away, I thought there was at least one hard thing I could do for him. And I did it.

Different motivators work for different folks.

Smokers quit for a number of different reasons. Smokers die. Smokers get taxed heavily. Smokers have fewer and fewer public places where they can smoke.  Smoking is no longer a societal norm because of a combination of education, regulation and enforcement.

Maybe messaging that says “driving while texting is just not cool” would work for a social segment. Maybe “driving while phoning is dangerous to your health” would work for another. Or “practice safe text.” Or even an abstinence pledge for others.  More research is needed here.

In the meantime, maybe cell and smart phone manufacturers would include an easily activated message and voice mail feature that says, “Hey dudes, I’m driving, be back soon.”

If you drive and text and kill yourself, that’s fine with me. But if you hurt or kill others, you go to hell. Maybe those zealots who pushed relentlessly for no-smoking regulations would work to provide a meaningful deterrent by strengthen the penalties for drivers at fault in accidents when they were using a cell phone. (Yes, phone records can be subpoenaed.)

And maybe friends and family, if they can take a moment off from their handheld devices, could remind drivers that “Friends don’t let friends drive and text.”

What do you suggest?

--Mike Sato


  1. Mike! I am starting a new non-profit just to address this very issue! How timely! Thanks for the free publicity! We don't want to have to enforce unless absolutely necessary. Education is our first choice. We will have a variety of classes and workshops and also news articles. We will arrange peer to peer opportunities and neighborhood "kitchen" meetings - we strongly believe that community "Neighbor helping neighbor" programs are what will be especially helpful. You maybe already are beginning to see some our "graffitti style" branding show up on road signs, derelict buildings, and disabled autos abandoned along the highway.
    In the meantime we also have partnered with numerous state, county and federal agencies and created a Safe Cellphone Using District and will be assessing each resident $28 per year (more if you are know to be a large, unlimited-use-plan subscriber.) This fund will be used to fund additonal efforts and also to leverage state and federal grants to bring even more money to the table. We will be encouraging a variety of approaches and projects - an "incubator" program if you will. Proposal guidelines, workshops and an entire team of our trained representatives will soon be available and even you Mike can apply.
    One of our first new "social marketing" programs is this really cute YouTube rap-song encouringing safe texting, and it is already a huge hit on the new i4Smart phones. You can expect many, many more efforts like this - check in on our FaceBook page and of course tweet us at any time ... #Just Say No will do it.

    Finally, we have contracted with Washington State University to conduct a DNA analysis of a random sample of "text while drive" culprits to determine just why they do it. Then we can reorganize the menus at fast food outlets and possibly cure the whole problem at its source. We are hoping for a meeting with Bill Gates about some additional possible funding for such a monumental undertaking.

    In the meantime, we will ask folks to try smoking. It is known to reduce tension and agression, and is generally safer to do while driving than texting is. So, light up.

    Thanks again Mike - Phillip Morris

  2. I suggest charging much, much higher fees for cell phones and service so that their environmental cost is considered. Fees for phones should cover the costs from the destruction of war and water quality in the Congo, where 80% of coltan comes from (coltan is a component of cell phones). In Congo, coltan is mined by groups of men digging in streams and scraping away dirt. Coltan is financing war in Congo and other places, causing thousands of deaths.

    I can't even begin to tell you how many people I see talkin' and textin' while I'm commuting around town on my bike. Thanks for bringing up this important issue!

  3. Two thoughts: if my kids call me I ask: are you driving? If "yes," I say pull over or call me when you arrive. No one else I know calls me while driving.

    Use of a cell phone while driving, even hands free, causes 'situational blindness.' You start to imagine the person and the place where they're calling from, and lose visual contact with the road and traffic around you. It happened to me and it was scary. Once was enough.


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