[FoRK] What irks me about over-broad hands-free cell phone laws and complaints about multitasking

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Mon Jun 2 11:41:13 PDT 2008

Re:  http://www.mercurynews.com/mrroadshow/ci_9452200?nclick_check=1

To: mrroadshow at mercurynews.com

The shrill calls for outlawing any multitasking while driving are not 
fair and not rational.  I completely agree that inexperienced drivers 
and those who are not able to effectively multitask show refrain from 
trying to practice multitasking in a potentially dangerous environment.  
It is certainly true that teenagers typically have not attained this 
training.  If someone is reckless, then call them on it.  However, to 
make the blanket assertion that it is unsafe for anyone to do so at any 
time is a huge intrusion into life and liberty.

I am a multitasker.  I multitask while working, while exercising, while 
communicating with several people at once, and, in fact, you could say 
that I'm Federally certified to multitask while operating a much more 
demanding vehicle: I'm a Private Pilot.  A private pilot must watch 6 
guages, a couple navigation devices, fly a plane in three dimensional 
space, watch in all directions for possible collisions, match the ground 
to bulky and sometimes hard to read navigation charts, communicate 
sometimes constantly over the radio, monitor weather for possible 
problems, update instrument settings periodically, and manage 
passengers.  It is highly simplistic to insist that this is not possible 
or safe enough.  To try to force me to stop trying to get some benefit 
out of an otherwise largely wasted and often long commute is offensively 
myopic and something I will fight in court if necessary.

I always give my primary attention to driving, of course.  Simarly, the 
primary rule as a Private Pilot is: "Fly the Plane!."  You can, however, 
at each point in time estimate how long you can spend attention 
elsewhere before a danger could occur without a safety margin.  Every 
driver has to learn how to do this to be a competent driver: You have to 
know how long you can look in the rear-view mirror, turn your head to 
sweep for blind spots, look down at your speedometer, gas, and engine 
temperature guages, tune the radio, pick up your Slurpee, etc.  There 
may be a lot of people who can't hold a conversation or fiddle with 
anything without forgetting to look at their surroundings .5 seconds 
later, however they are not representative of all of us who have far 
more bandwidth and the ability to strictly prioritize.  Most of my 
driving is very automatic and extremely reactive to emergency 
situations.  That won't be the case for a new driver.  Additionally, I 
would argue that some alternatives are far more dangerous.  Pulling off 
the side of a highway and then merging back in, suddenly or not, is much 
more dangerous in a congested area than using fractions of a second of 
attention or eye contact here and there.

This is part of a longer discussion about overly-striving for perfect 
security in some areas while ignoring far more risky instances.  I think 
these calls also include errors in the perception of probabilities.  I 
have driven as much as 4 hours a day, and over 2 hours a day for long 
periods, in the worst traffic in the DC area for 13 years, and 14 years 
before that in Dayton/Cincinnati and Cleveland, talking on the phone or 
otherwise multitasking for as much of that time as possible, without 
ever having an accident or even a close call.  I've driven in Paris, 
London, Canada, Mexico, and Helsinki.  Occasionally, I'll forget to 
watch for an exit, but I never compromise the safety of my driving.  If 
anything, conversation helps me to be more alert.  My ingrained training 
on this is so strong that I viscerally cringe when watching a driving 
actor not glance ahead often enough when they are turned so far that not 
even peripheral vision would help them track the road, let alone dodge 

I have always used a "hands free" device in the sense of a headset, 
wired or wireless, whenever possible, i.e. until one breaks.  In a 
pinch, I will (or used to anyway) just put the phone up to my head, but 
I have never liked that, with any phone.  I use headsets at my desk 
phone also, starting a trend at a couple large companies because of the 
obvious benefit.

To a competent driver, driving is not a demanding task.  Please point 
out significant dangers, but try not to project inability on others, 
especially when it would result, in a sense, to loss of large amounts of 
living time.  I would suggest you stress, as I have to my teenagers, 
that just because they can handle non-emergency situations well doesn't 
mean that they could react fast enough when things go wrong.  They need 
to increase margins of time and space over what might be safe for more 
experienced drivers and those with more capable vehicles.  Effective 
emergency reaction takes a lot of driving to ingrain reactions, quick 
thinking, and accurate estimation of timing, distances, and vehicle ability.

SW, Mountain View, CA

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