Thursday, October 24, 2013

Distracted Perspective

…By the time I was a teenager we had moved beyond our small town days. Everyone had long become used to the appropriate morality of using liquor: Don’t drink in public, don’t be a drunken public nuisance, and don’t encourage minors to imbibe. (Lest they fail to develop common coping skills) And so back then a lady could sit on a bench on the town square, across from the church and city hall, and feel quite safe. So much for alcohol. Meanwhile the morals for two other substances, tobacco and marijuana, had yet to catch up. This was before any 1980’s research into “side stream” smoke, what we later called “second hand” smoke.

As a teen I noticed something about inappropriate use of substances: The worst offenders were the most vociferous about their feelings of entitlement. Were they so loud from being extra sincere, or from needing extra self-justification? As an adult I realized it was the latter when I noticed history repeating: When cellular telephones arrived, using the principle of a honeycomb of cells around towers talking to satellites, the worst offenders insisted they were entitled to raise their voices in public. Meanwhile, good people only groaned and silently submitted… just as earlier they had submitted to side stream smoke.

But in time, as good people conversed with each other, things changed. For example, I read in the newspaper that elegant waiters were finding the courage, with backup from the public, to tell people to carry their cells over to the payphones to conduct their conversations. I didn’t do fine dining, so I never saw it for myself, but I would have loved to see a poor but honest waiter facing down a rich scowling loudmouth.

The issue was not the quality of the microphones, but the quality of the users: They were raising their voices from vanity. Of course, as the cell phones have become cheap and common, the loudmouths are fewer:  What they show now-a-days is not their vanity—just their sheer selfishness.  They suck.

Lately I’ve seen how young digital pirates have been angrily impervious to reason. From their willful blindness my jaw drops; from their self-justification my tongue curls in disgust. (Here’s a trailhead to a link-path where various pirates raise their Jolly Roger as they comment to one of my favorite writers, David Gerrold) I think any solution for society won’t be a quick fix from “reasoning with pirates,” only a long slog of good people reasoning with each other and then surrounding the pirates with a consensus that piracy is wrong.

Every time a new technology comes along it takes us by surprise, and then society has to play catch up. Back when I was a boy, soon after the scientists had invented the horror of the atom bomb, it was often said the laboratory wizards have a responsibility to think before they give us a new invention. This sort of talk has vanished, I think, as I read nothing about science ethics when, as I dimly remember reading in the newspaper, a couple of Asian scientists published how to determine a baby’s sex. It seems to me the inventors of new technologies have a duty to think things through, as Prometheus did, and as Oppenheimer maybe didn’t, before they gift us with their fire. (Sting sang, in Russians, “How can I save my little boy, from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”)

For example, the purpose of having only three digits in an emergency, 9-1-1, is partly to save time. It might seem that cutting out a couple digits, and having only one panicky button to press on a cell phone, might save another precious microsecond during a frantic emergency. I suppose that’s a benefit, but did the nerds who invented the single 9-11 button UI (user interface) not foresee the cost? Obviously in Silicon Valley the computer guys carry their phones and calculators in cases on their belt, below their pocket protectors—how charmingly nerdish—but didn’t they think about normal people? Plain folks will just toss their cell phone tumbling into their purse, or jam it into their jackets and jeans, and then sit on the phone—needing only a single button to rouse the guys at the fire station. This should have been foreseen.

History repeats: In recent years, as with substances and cell phones, it has been like pulling teeth to get entitled people to admit that “distracted driving” is a Bad Thing. Early on, Oprah even had a man on her TV show who explained that even a “hands free” distraction is much more dangerous that talking to a front seat passenger. But still people kept angrily rejecting the science. I’m no longer surprised. At last, one by one, various jurisdictions are outlawing distracted driving. If not for resistance from the “folks of entitlement,” the laws could have been passed right away; saving God knows how many limbs and lives.

The police can only do their best. If here in Alberta we haven’t outlawed hands free devices yet, then it is only because trying to do so was meeting stiff resistance, besides being harder to enforce. So we compromised by banning only hands on devices.

Meanwhile, in my hometown of Calgary the road engineers, despite the booming oil wells, hadn’t anticipated how the population would boom. Pity the drivers: At certain stoplights, with our severe lack of East-West connecting roads, it is common to see a number of idling cars. After the distracted driving law was finally passed, the police then posed as beggars, going among the stopped cars and ticketing the users of mobile devices. Oh, how people were upset! Despite the law, the idiots felt entitled, since they were “stopped.” I have little sympathy for them, very little, and besides—aren’t they their brother’s keeper? What if someone sees them being distracted while stopped on the road, copies them, and then copies them while driving too? I say this with a trace of sarcasm.

I remember being stopped once on Memorial Drive. With a score of cars ahead of me, and a dozen stopped behind me, I felt safe. No one was going to come barreling down the road and hit me. The light changed. I gently took my foot off the brake, patiently waiting for the cars ahead, one by one, to go. Unfortunately I was chewing sour candy that day, with my jaw way out of line, when the young guy behind me hit me. Crash! We both got out. My car had only the tiniest dent. “What happened?” I asked

“I was on my cell phone—my hands free cell phone; I just broke off with my girl friend—suddenly I noticed the light had changed, so I went.” That was in April. My doctor tried muscle relaxants. In July my dentist, standing at arm’s length, could hear my jaw clicking. Physiotherapy is not an option. In October I can still feel a difference in the two sides of my face, a permanent reminder for the rest of my life, a possible source of pain when I become a senior citizen… Oh well, maybe my accident has sent the man a lesson, preventing a fatal injury to someone else.

Now, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun; I like new technology as much as anybody; in fact, I enjoy using my MacBook Air to surf and see Youtube. Last week I noticed someone had posted a nice clip from Easy Rider, of two friends on motorcycles riding through God’s own country. One of the commenters for that post used to love riding free and easy. Not now. In the last seconds of his normal life he could see the lady who hit him holding her Goddamn cell phone. Now he has a new normal. A wheelchair.

Such is my perspective on persons who feel entitled to drive distracted.

Sean Crawford
~Footnote for US readers: Somebody told me that in crowded Los Angeles the cars all have to start to move off in unison, but that is not the case here in relaxed “Cowtown.” A few years ago our total population, including suburbs, reached one million—which would make our prairie town only a suburb of L.A. Here our cars move off one by one.

~I could have shrunk this big essay into a little sound bite: “If you distract, don’t drive; if you drive, don’t distract.” But that might be seen as a mere cliché, or as preaching... Forget swift preaching; essays are more fun.

~My essay Pirates and Prohibition is archived in April 2012

Update: The day after this posted, the Calgary Sun for Oct 25 ran a two page spread,  part 1 of 3, Driven to Distraction. Between 2008 and 20012 all of Canada's provinces and territories, except Nunavut, have come out with legislation.
(on the current legislation) "It's not working and it is not working right across North America," Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson says.
"…Ontario blamed a higher number of deaths on distracted driving than impaired motorists."
"After the tragedy, Henkel put her phone into the trunk when driving, urging fellow motorists to acknowledge the potential gravity of distracted driving and do the same."


  1. Driving distracted - is that phone call or text THAT important?

    A little pet peeve of mine is when I see a parent at a park with their child and the parent is on their cell phone. Sometimes, I want to say "You missed it, you're missing it, pay attention. Get off of your phone and live in the moment!".

    I've noticed families at restaurants, all on their cell phones, texting etc. and not talking to one another. It's very strange and concerning.

  2. Somehow, just watching people engaged in their undignified behaviour is somehow degrading to me too, just seeing them.

    I guess in time I will blunt my consciousness, like how I barely wince when I see an adult chewing cud, as in bubblegum.

    The sad thing is they were like this even before devices were invented—we just didn't know it yet.

    When I was a teenager, for various reasons that I forget, I spent a long time on the phone to people. These days it's easier to see them in person, and more rewarding, so I spend less time electronically talking. I don't know why other older persons haven't reduced their time too.

    At least there will always be individuals who set an example by, say, meditating, focusing, noticing the world, going to the gymnasium and jogging paths… and I suppose the gum chewers will blunt their awareness that such folks exist.

    Meanwhile, on the radio someone said it might take seven decades, as with drunk driving, before the public agrees that people are not entitled to distraction behind the wheel. Not a happy thought.

  3. 7 decades!!! That is unbelievable. Wow.......

    I agree- I'd rather have a conversation with someone in person, if possible.

    I think that our younger generation will be greatly impacted by their cell phone use in the way that they communicate with one another.

    People might break up and divorce with a simple acronym text. It probably already exists! Sad.

    You've got a great blog. Insightful.

  4. Accidents happen when you least expect them to, so it’s best not to let your guard down. Driving while distracted can cause you, as well as other people, harm in a form of an injury or a totaled car. Nobody wants to be a public nuisance, so it’s best to remind yourself that when you’re about to do anything else while driving, stop for a while. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sean! They are highly appreciated. All the best to you!

    Sabrina Craig @ Medical Attorney NY