Cell Phone Battle Turns Bitter

cell phones
The air is full of zillions of words and 100 million conversations at anytime of the day or night. And it all emanates from those magic little boxes called cell phones.

Cell phone users are never out of touch. They can talk and then talk some more. The conversation never seems to stop because they have thousands of minutes a month to use up.

But some of those conversations are beginning to annoy other people in what is shaping up to be a cell-phone war.

In 1990, there were four million cell phones in the United States. By last year, there were 134 million cell phones in use in the country.

"It's really gotten to be a problem," says CellManners.com's Carol Page. "People are just yelling their personal business everywhere."

The "Miss Manners" of cell phones says there is no reason for loud conversations.

"Remember the cone of silence on 'Get Smart?' People seem to think there's a cone of silence that descends over them," she says. "But, of course, it doesn't. Do we have to yell about the results of our colonoscopy at Home Depot?"

A recent poll shows that 86 percent of Americans say they are never discourteous on their cell phones. But, 50 percent believe that people, in general, have very bad cell-phone manners.

One step for better phone etiquette is to speak more softly.

"Grand Central Station, the world's largest train terminal, is actually wired for good cell-phone use," says Dan Brucker, an employee with Metro-North — a New York City commuter line.

He says the station allows cell-phone users to hear more clearly when speaking softly than when speaking at full volume.

Some, however, don't have to worry about being too loud on their cell phones, because they don't have the modern communication tool.

For Randy Cohen, who writes the ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine, it's not only about manners. The decision to fight cell-phone abuse is an ethical one.

"[If] you and I were on a cross-country bus, and you decided to make a series of phone calls, I would have to smash it," Cohen says. "I wouldn't want to, I would be obliged to, to be ethically consistent."

He says cell-phone owners have abandoned all civility, and he would fear for their development as human beings.

Driving while using your cell-phone may be legal, but it'll still get you an earful from NPR's "Car Talk" brothers Ray and Tom Magliozzi.

They say that while cell phones do save thousands of lives every year in emergencies, they also cause between 2,000 and 3,000 traffic fatalities and 300,000 injuries. They even have a name for it — DWY, Driving While Yakking.

"When you're on the cell phone, the best evidence suggests that your crash risk increases by about a factor of four," says Joshua Cohen, a researcher at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

According to Cohen, you can actually measure the difference in eye movement of drivers.

The eye normally scans [as] it goes back and forth, which is what you would expect," he says. "When a person is involved in a phone call, their eyes suddenly stop moving. They get what's called tunnel vision."

People on trains seem to be especially annoyed, or annoying — depending on which side of the cell-phone divide you happen to be on. Amtrak has what it calls "quiet cars" in which cell-phone use is banned. However, that hasn't prevented more than a few skirmishes between cell-phone users, and those who prefer the company of their own thoughts.

"I heard of a story very recently on an Amtrak train, where someone was using their cell phone in a quiet car. And let's face it, that really is bad," recalls commuter Carol Page. "And another traveler said, 'Do you know this is the quiet car' and he wouldn't stop. And she grabbed his phone and smashed it."

James Cameron, head of a Connecticut group lobbying for quiet cars on the commuter line, says, "I think when I get that train ride, it comes with an expectation of peace and quiet as much as possible. I don't want to take all cell-phone users and segregate them in one car. Lets take the few of us nuts that just want a peaceful quiet ride, put us in one car."

But cell-phone user Jeff Moran disagrees.

"I don't think it's someone else's right to impose upon the 90 percent of us who do use the cell phone to get herded into random cars on the train, or to have to stand because the trains are crowded, except for the quiet car that might be half empty," he says.

Cameron counters, "It's these self-important people, who think that their cell phone is more important than anything in the world, including the peace and solitude of 50 other people within earshot, that I find most objectionable."

Randy Cohen says it's not against the law to talk on cell phones, but it's not ethical to disturb another's peace of mind.

Actor Brian Dennehy doesn't find cell phones to be amusing, especially during his performance in the theatre.

"Now you get these tunes, you know, the 1812 overture," he says.

He remembers one unforgettable performance while starring in "Death of a Salesman." A cell phone went off during the second act.

It's a very beautiful scene, heartbreaking scene, and this thing went off, and it went off, and it went off, and it went off," he recalls. "I finally just said, 'Alright, let's stop. We'll wait while you find your phone and turn it off, have your conversation, whatever it is, but we'll just wait.' Well of course the guy was mortified and ran out of the theater."

Cohen says he isn't a lawyer but he laughs, "As I understand it, under the laws of the state of New York, if someone uses one during a Broadway show, you're allowed to kill them. You're allowed to beat them to death with a cell phone."

A punishment Brian Dennehy, now starring in "A Long Days Journey Into Night," may not disagree with.

"They should probably consider the death penalty for people who have these cell phones," he says.

Next in sight, the picture phone, promises to pose even more pointed questions about privacy and ethics. But, says Randy Cohen, it's still important to focus on the fundamentals.

"It's what our mothers would call courteous," he says.