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There they go again: National ban on texting while driving

textingThere is no question that if no one used cell phones while driving, lives would be saved but so would not eating while driving or drinking a Coke or looking at GPS or talking to a passenger or solving disputes between children in the back seat or daydreaming or…(fill in the blank). It is a fact of life that distractions on the road are increasing and all of them increase the likelihood of an accident.

I believe that everyone who drives should keep his/her eyes on the road at all times and not attend to anything in or out of the car that would distract him or her. However, it ain’t going to happen. (Even in space the astronauts looked out the window.)

Cell phones are addictive in that they provide the user with a rate of reinforcement that is higher than almost anything else in the car. Therefore they are clearly the most dangerous. If we have just eaten we will not be likely to eat or drink in the car but if we have just talked to a friend while at the restaurant, it does not reduce the probability that we will not talk on the cell phone when we get back in the car. It may even increase it because we may remember something to tell the friend that we forgot when talking in the restaurant.

Employees at ADI responded to the NTSB’s recent national plea to ban cell phone use by making a pledge to stop using the phone while driving. It is a worthy goal. Only a week later, and none has been able to stop. They all said they are doing better but no one has stopped. Is it possible to develop a habit of driving without using a cell phone? It is, but it will take time, probably many weeks, even though they are not doing it under threat of getting a ticket or losing their license. It is a volunteer activity.

Why is it that the Department of Transportation only thinks of punishing those who do something wrong or dangerous as a way to stop the behavior? The first reason is that they want to give the public the impression that they are awake at the switch. The press release about “banning all cell phones” gives the appearance of taking the problem serious. Second, the statement by the chairman, Deborah Hersman that “We’re not here to win a popularity contest” makes it sound even more serious. Tough talk is often rewarded by the press and the public. Such speeches are make-work, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” In spite of appearing to be the right thing, they are the wrong thing to do for at least three reasons:

First, fining or even taking a license is a negative but uncertain consequence. No one using a cell phone thinks that s/he will get caught. When an uncertain negative consequence comes face to face with the positive immediate consequence of talking to someone about a problem, a girlfriend or boyfriend, an appointment, a dinner date, etc., the positive immediate consequence will win every time.

Second, the behavior of avoiding getting caught makes the use of the cell phone even more dangerous.

Third, how many times does the Department of Transportation have to come out with knee-jerk reactions and solutions with little evidence that they understand anything about human behavior until the public completely ignores their “warnings?” Think about compliance to speed limit signs.

I am bothered by drivers on the phone like everyone else. If a car is moving slowly in traffic or moving erratically, it angers me to see on passing that they are on the cellphone. However, I don’t want a legal or governmental solution since I know it won’t work. I also know that if a legal solution is advanced, it will never be repealed even though it doesn’t work.

I believe, as I have said before, that because of the positive immediate consequences provided by cell phone use, the only solution is a technological one. Make cell phones so that they will not work as long as the phone is moving. The sooner we come to that realization and put resources and time on that solution and less on pronouncements that won’t work, the sooner we will begin saving lives.

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