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Death By Cell Phone

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You only wanted to buy a quart of milk, but suddenly you're being subjected to an amateur version of The Vagina Monologues. Eric Engberg feels your pain. He holds forth below on the evils of cell phones and their chatty users.

Sometimes it seems as though technology slaps us in the face with a new threat to accompany every miracle it bestows on society. Case in point: the increasingly ubiquitous cellular telephone.

As evidence mounts that the average American driver is much more likely to do something stupid and deadly with his automobile if he is talking on a cell phone, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week began hearing testimony from experts on the dangers of "distractions" created by mobile electronic gadgetry.

Time Out! By focusing exclusively on car wrecks, the safety police are missing a menace to society created by cellular addiction that's just as frightening and far more irritating - the wholesale spreading of private personal information to helpless, captive bystanders.

You've all had it happen. You're standing in a book store, roughly between the travel guides and the latest Harry Potter adventure, when you are assailed by a voice three feet away loudly exclaiming, "How long ago did he vomit?"

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Taken aback, you turn toward the hurler (no pun intended) of this disquieting question to find that it is not directed at you. Instead it's another customer in the store, obviously a mother, with a portable phone up against her ear talking to a discombobulated baby sitter about a 4-year-old's troubled digestive system.

You take several quick steps toward the safety of the Tom Clancy section in the hopes the CIA and nuclear submarines can protect you from the barrage of upchuck disclosures. But there, you are exposed to a long-distance lovers' spat between a cellular-equipped commodities broker in the "FAST BUCK" section and his fiancé in Hoboken who is feeling insufficiently appreciated ("You know I love ya, baby...." etc.).

As you flee this onslaught of other people's business you don't want to know, you long for the days when people had to go to a phone booth to make a call. And you wonder whether the day will come when public buildings are equipped with non-phone booths, quiet little rooms where people can go to shut out the cacophony of portable cellular users intent on bleating out the full story of their private lives.

The "Enof Privacy as We Once Knew It" is made more ominous by another offshoot of the cellular age, something called "minutes."

The deals now being pushed by cellular companies to seize a market share award the customer a specific number of minutes on the line every month before additional charges are tacked on. Thus, people who have nothing to say are encouraged by the machinery of the marketplace to say it anyway. In circles where the gadget-obsessed live, it is now quite common to receive a call from someone saying, "Hi, I don't have anything to tell you, but I've got to use up 56 minutes on my cell phone this month, and thought you were a good person to waste them on." It's very flattering to get such a call.

One of the ironies of the current state of affairs is that the people who sell cellular service have labored mightily in Washington's political vineyards to win extraordinary government protection for the very privacy their customers willy-nilly abandon when they make calls in the middle of a crowded room.

The cellular industry's lobbying powerhouse pushed through the Electronic Communications Protection Act in 1986 (remember ECPA?). This law makes it a crime to "intentionally intercept" a cellular call on a radio receiver, even though cellular phones use the same part of the radio spectrum that people have been listening to for years on scanners to hear police calls. In a real sense, the cellular industry took away one right from Americans - to tune in all sections of the radio spectrum - in order to shore up the rights of its customers. And for what? So that the customers could blab away all their private information on street corners and in crowded rooms.

Experts on etiquette say that the reason so many cell phone users annoy people in public places is that rules for appropriate behavior typically do not evolve as quickly as technology does. We're supposedly still catching up.

If that is correct, a new "cellular ethic" may soon develop that will reign in the current bleating. But isn't it just possible that the absence of good cellular manners has deeper causes? Perhaps too much time spent in front of TV screens, computer monitors, and Palm Pilots has atrophied our civility skills. Maybe what we are seeing is a generation of techno-geeks so enamored of themselves and their little handheld miracle machines that they think the rest of the world actually likes to listen to what they say. About everything.