The sad truth is most people know using a cellphone while driving is dangerous, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it.
Kind of like most people have a vague idea that the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292 million, or that the odds of the Mega Millions are 1 in 303 million, and yet they keep buying tickets.
But I digress Lottery tickets come with their own moral hazards, but they don’t kill people on the roads. The point, however, is that humans don’t always do things in their own best interests. Sometimes, they knowingly do things that are risky or, to be blunt, that are stupid.
Utah Rep. Carol Spackman Moss is sponsoring a bill in the next legislative session that would outlaw cellphones almost completely while driving. The bill would go a step beyond Utah’s current law against distracted driving, which allows people to talk on the phone but not input text or view videos. It would outlaw everything but using a GPS device to stay on the right road.
Which, if you were smart, would be your excuse of first resort if pulled over.
Oh, and you could still use hands-free devices.
I admire the effort. Some evidence exists linking tough laws against cellphone use and better behavior, although a recent study by Zendrive found Vermont drivers are the most distracted in all the land, despite that state’s tough laws.
Mostly, however, I’m skeptical.
Not just because studies have shown even hands-free driving is dangerous, but because the problem, at its root, is the phone itself. And let’s face it, that device isn’t going anywhere. Like all technology, from fire to nuclear energy, the invention of the smartphone has been a blessing and a curse.
The curse is, you can’t leave it alone.
Don’t try to deny it. I’ve stopped taking candid shots of friends in public places because all I get are the tops of their heads, which are bowed in solemn reverence to the screens in hand.
But not only can you not leave these things alone, you can’t stop thinking about them even when you aren’t holding them.
Three years ago, the journal Social Psychology published research suggesting just having a phone nearby distracts you even if you never pick it up. More than 50 college students were given tasks to complete. In one test, the study leader’s phone was visible. In another, the participants’ phones were visible.
They did worse than the people in control groups who could not see a phone.
A more recent study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that we do better at focusing our attention on tasks at hand the farther we are from our phones. This is true even if the phones don’t beep or otherwise demand attention.
As a Huffington Post story on the study said, “People just can’t resist shiny, pretty things.”
A new term, “nomophobia” is taking root. It’s the fear of being away from your phone.
Bill Thornton, a University of Southern Maine professor who co-authored the 2014 study, put it this way: The phone is a conduit to the outside world, and people are always doing stuff out there.
“With the presence of the phone, you’re wondering what those people are doing,” he told Time magazine. “Even if it’s just mental, your focus is not on the task at hand.”
Ironically, he also said text messages are just generally unimportant, “Unless you’re an adviser to the president. ”
That was in 2014, before the election of a president who Tweets all day.
Look, I get just as angry about distracted drivers as anybody. I see plenty of them every day and wonder what a stiff fine would do to their habits. Moss’s bill likely would nab some of the worst offenders.
But while we’re on the subject of studies, one from the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction found that 98 percent of people believe texting and driving is dangerous, but 74 percent admit to doing it at times, including reading while at a stop light.
Human nature is tough to fight. The best solution on the horizon may be the driverless car. When it comes, we’ll need to rewrite all the laws, anyway.