Do You Have To?

I know I am treading on sacred ground when I talk about how people use their cell phones. It’s personal. According to a Pew Research Center study, more than three quarters of all Americans have a smartphone. A moniker that makes me wonder, am I smart because I have one or is is it insinuating the phone is plainly smarter than me? Either way, think about how close we are to this genius. For most of us, it’s often within hands’ reach. I, myself, can admit to carrying it on my person the majority of the time. It has become the single most used item in my life. When I can’t find it, my heart races and an intense sense of panic and doom lays a cloud down so deep, you’d think I’d lost my mind and not an electronic device. Did I just write the words, “an electronic device?” Oh, what an understatement! These days, that device is our calendar, our photo library, our “I don’t know and, rather than think about it, I’ll Google it” resource center, navigation system, games, books, social interaction, and the all-holy list of contacts. Do we even know our family’s phone numbers anymore? Have we been complacently tapping on their name for years, trusting our dear ever-sosmart companion to hold all this valuable info forever?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my phone. It’s pretty. Great design. Easy to use. And then there’s Siri. She can transcribe like nobody’s business! Siri is intelligent and helpful, with, I admit, a few failings. Once, she misheard a text I dictated and instead of telling my friend I was getting my butt kicked at Jazzercise, Siri used the verb licked. We haven’t been the same since. I mean my friend and I, not Siri.

But, I digress. Why this ode to cell phones? I want to implore you to stop using one. I know. Big ask. But don’t worry, I’m only requesting this favor in one area of your life, while you are driving.

The statistics speak for themselves. The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year. A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute reports sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, at 55- mph the equivalent of driving blind for the length of a football field. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers this sobering message; driving while texting is six times more dangerous than driving while drunk.

We have laws against this dangerous practice. Vermont Statute states, “A person shall not use a portable electronic device while operating a motor vehicle on a public highway.” According to a local official, this means we also can not hold the device in our hands while using the speaker phone. The law says we must be completely hands off and only touch the device to activate hands-free operation and, if needed, to contact emergency services. By the way, I double checked, the law also states we cannot use our phones at stop lights. Alas, laws are not enough.

A recent AT&T survey noted that 98 percent of drivers acknowledge that texting and driving is dangerous. However, 74 percent admit to doing it anyways, many calling it a “habit.”

Distracted driving is not new. I’ve had drivers, who were reading a book, pass me on the Jersey Turnpike. Once, I saw a driver with two hands of playing cards. In my own younger days, I stupidly applied makeup on my way to work. And who doesn’t eat in the car? And don’t get me started about the “infotainment” systems on our dashboard. But nothing is as rampant as our incessant use of cell phones while driving. It literally makes being on the roads more dangerous everyday.

We have become Pavlov’s dog of the electronic world; we just have to see what that next ping is all about. I will go out on a limb and suggest that while we are driving, most text messages can wait.

What do we need to do to resist the temptation, practice delayed gratification, and keep our attention on the road?

When I drove to work last week on Williston Road, I was almost hit by a woman who was on her phone. This is not a rare occurrence. And although I am frightened every day by all the people I see on their phones while driving, what really scares me are the people I love - and the people you love - who could get hurt because someone “just had to” text.

So I ask, humbly, with respect, do you have to? Is it worth it? Let’s all put down the phone when we drive. It’s the law. And as one state’s safety campaign says, no conversation, phone or text, is worth a ticket or a life.

In MusingCarole Vasta Folley