Driven to distraction 


The news that cell phones might cause brain tumors wasn't a very big surprise, and frankly, I'm guessing the Swedish medical researchers who did the study on this subject got their charts upside down. I think it may be that brain tumors cause cell phones, or at least the behavior a lot of people exhibit when using them.

It's one thing to blather on at high volume in quiet-time places like bookstores or to leave your ringer on when you go to the movies so that people miss dialogue but remember that the moron sitting behind them got a call. The most obvious evidence the milk in your coconut has gone sour, though, is talking on a cell phone while driving.

Car talking is a little bit like being a fan of "Dawson's Creek." You know people are doing it, but no one wants to admit it. We see them doing it, usually just before they damn near run into us, cut us off or sideswipe us because they were busy getting directions.

Being on the road in Florida feels like a constant, live-action game of Frogger, and to put cell phones in the hands (both of which ought to be on the wheel, by the way) of drivers in this state is like shooting hairspray out of the hoses at our brush fires. Nine countries, including England and Japan, have an outright ban on driving while on the phone. There, if you have something so important to say to someone that you have to do so in transit, you are required to pull over, which makes perfect sense: Anything that important deserves your full attention, as does driving.

Steer clear

Of course, taking legal action against cellular phones is too much common sense to ask for, although Congress has considered it. There are plenty of reasons, too, all of which you can find at www.cartalk.com, the website for Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the "Car Talk" guys, who have a twice-weekly column and a talk-radio show on car care that even the mechanically stunted can understand and enjoy. They're so irritated by behind-the-wheel chatterers that they offered a free bumper sticker that said, "Drive now, talk later"; the 30,000 they printed were snapped up in two weeks. The New England Journal of Medicine said the risk of accidents is four times greater if a driver is yakking behind the wheel. Still, 27 percent of cell-phone users talk into the receiver on at least half of their driving trips, and 87 percent occasionally do. But only two states require the police to report whether a cell phone is a factor in a crash.

It isn't that I can't understand wanting to talk on the phone. I'm a world-class phonestress, able to chat for eight hours at a stretch without so much as a moment of silence. And maybe there are some people who are gifted in the area of motor skills, who are able to look up their mom's phone number in Des Moines, dial it and listen to her health complaints while they're merging into the fast lane, eating a sandwich, removing an unsightly wart, changing radio stations, working out with their Thighmaster and looking up stock quotes at the same time. I'm not one of them. Neither are any of the people who have nearly killed me while they were negotiating traffic and conversation simultaneously.

What I'm itching to know is, what do they have to talk about that is so damned fascinating it can't wait until they're at home in the bubble bath with their Princess phone, the way civilized people communicate? I think I have a reasonably interesting life, but there's nothing so important in it that I have to convey or have conveyed to me while I'm on an on-ramp.

Crash course

When you consider it, the more fascinating the conversations are, the more dangerous someone's driving can be. What if a driver gets some meganews just as they're coming up behind you at a red light? Any given cell-phone user would only have to hear two little words in order to up the chances they'll end up in your trunk. You wouldn't want to be near any cellular driver when they hear these tiny but potent combinations:

"It's cancer."

"It's malignant."

"Six months."

"No will."

"I'm pregnant."

"It's yours."

"Not yours."

"It's twins."

"They're Siamese."

"Someone else."

"Your father."

"I'm gay."

"Your father."

"You're fired."

"You're broke."

"No brakes."

"Try them."

"You see?"

"Good riddance."

See how two words can be all it takes to cause a pile-up? Here are a few more two-word sets that could counteract it all:

Goddamn it. Pull over. Hang up. Just drive. Talk later.

That's better.


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