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Guy Vs. Guy: Cell Phone Bans: Good or Evil?

Welcome to Guy Vs. Guy! In this recurring feature, Rick and Dave square off on the business and technology issues of the day. This week's topic: dialing and driving. More and more states are ordering drivers to put down their phones. For many businesspeople, that's a tough act-of-government to swallow. But is it necessary?
Dave: A handful of states are adopting legislation that rolls back your right to talk on a phone while driving. I find this a fascinating example of random governmental nannyism. You, I'm sure, favor such rules and would never even think of using a cell phone while driving a vehicle, even though having business conversations during commutes is an essential part of our lives today. So: Ready, set, crazy talk!

Rick: Yeah, I hate it when the government tries to save people from themselves, like with those pesky seatbelt laws. If I want to go through the windshield, that's my constitutional right, dammit! The inescapable fact is that when you're monkeying with a cell phone while driving, you're not paying attention to the road. My only hope is that you'll pile into a tree and not the oncoming minivan containing my family.

Dave: I really don't need to be saved from myself, especially when that saving comes in the form of the government using force of arms to do so. Especially when most, if not all, states already have perfectly good distracted-driving laws on the books. If you are doing something that interferes with your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, you're already in violation of the law. Why do we need a new law that covers just one random thing that could potentially be distracting?

Rick: Potentially? The only thing more distracting than a cell phone is a GPS (which is why many automakers wisely restrict drivers from interacting with built-in nav systems when the vehicle is in motion). Think about it: The simple act of dialing a number requires you to glance down at your phone a minimum of 11 times (one for each number, then again to find the Send button). Sure, you can reduce this with speed-dial, voice-dial, touch-dial, etc., but even those require some attention-stealing interaction with the phone. And don't forget the opposite side of coin: I know people who read their BlackBerrys while driving. So, yeah, I have no problem with legislation that punishes that kind of insanity.

Dave: While I appreciate your personal opinion that cell phones are the Most Dangerous Thing Ever, there are a million distractions in your car, so why only outlaw one of them? GPS, programming a radio station, reading a paper map, dealing with a cranky kid in the backseat, cleaning a spilled coffee out of your lap, eating a sandwich. They're all as distracting or moreso than voice-dialing a phone. Let's face it: There are 11 million reported accidents each year, and 42,000 result in death (and those numbers have held roughly steady for years, despite the rise of cell phone use). That means that of all the accidents each year, less than a half of a single percent result in death. Cell phones are responsible for a subset of even that number. Life is full of tradeoffs. Prohibiting my ability to use a cell phone for such a statistically insignificant payoff is simply not a rational decision.

Rick: Just to clarify my position, I'm not in favor of banning phones outright. That's both ridiculous and unenforceable. But I do support the current crop of hands-free laws, which require drivers to use a headset or speakerphone. Because, much as it pains me to say so, you're right: Talking on a cell phone hardly qualifies as more distracting than futzing with the radio or turning around to let the kids know you will stop this car if they don't shape up. At least a headset lets you keep both hands on the wheel. The real issue these days seems to be texting while driving. Read the account of a guy who got rear-ended three times in one year by SMS-happy drivers. It's amazing he wasn't killed. People need to wake up and smell the asphalt: Cars are deadly weapons, and if you're paying attention to your phone instead of the road, someone's going to get hurt -- or worse.

Dave: Wow... for a moment, and I do mean just for a fleeting moment, you seemed to stop emoting and actually consider the question from a dispassionate, rational position. But now you're back to emoting, and all is right with the world again. You want to legislate away cell phones in cars unless they're hands-free, citing a highly questionable article filled with unsubstantiated hearsay. Well, guess what? I have my own anecdotal evidence. I drove to work today and passed about 1,000 cars. Not one of them got in an accident. Not a single one. I would even bet that at least one percent of them were checking e-mail or placing a call while the vehicle was in operation (I certainly was). So if it's a battle of anecdotes, I will absolutely win, since there are 11 million reported accidents annually, but, conservatively speaking, well in excess of 100 billion car trips each year. Good odds, I say, and ample reason not to legislate away more of our rights.

Rick: So if I understand your "logic" correctly, the fact that we don't have more traffic accidents means we shouldn't take steps to help prevent the ones we do have. Can you even see the crux of this argument anymore? I'll use some small words and short sentences to help you out. Businesspeople who spend a lot of time behind the wheel -- I'm talking realtors, salespeople, traveling IT staff, and the like -- are probably the folks who play dangerous games with their phones. I don't want these people killing others -- or even themselves -- because they decided a text message or client call was more important than common-sense road safety. Phones, BlackBerries, GPSes -- handy tools like these often make drivers throw their common sense out the window (which is littering, by the way, also bad). Legislation may not be effective, but it might just help knock some awareness into these people. Tell me again which "rights" are being taken away?

Dave: But if we have established that statistically speaking, cell phone car accidents are relatively insignificant, what exactly is the point of banning their use? Your argument sounds suspiciously like "if it saves only one child, isn't it worth it?" And I'm sorry, but no, as much as I love kids, sometimes it isn't worth it. Like in this case: I don't want to be fined or arrested because I accidentally left my Bluetooth headset at home and had to make an important call anyway. As long as I do it safely, why chip away at what I'm allowed to do in my car? Unless you also plan to ban kids, food, and music, as well, since they're also distractions. (Remember that episode of the Brady Bunch in which Greg got in a car accident because he was looking at a record jacket?)

Rick: You may use your phone safely (if there is such a thing), but what about the moron who's texting while driving? Poking around the glove compartment to find the charger? In fact, forget about your rights -- at this point I'm more concerned about my right to travel the roads as safely as possible. I honestly don't see the harm in legislation that promotes that goal. Sorry if it inconveniences you or anybody else. We don't let people drive drunk. Why should we let them drive distracted?

Okay, who won the debate? Hit the Talkback to declare a winner and share your thoughts on the issue. When that's done, check out the previous Guy Vs. Guy entries, which are just as entertaining and enlightening.
Photo by xersti.

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