Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Little Less Conversation

Anyone remember that 1968 Elvis song, "A Little Less Conversation"?

I'm humming that tune in celebration of California's new law, in effect today, making it illegal (with necessary exceptions) to use a mobile phone while driving.

Of course, you can trust California to leave a loophole wide enough to fit a moving car. At present, it's still OK for adults to send text messages while on the road, as if that activity is somehow less distracting than talking. Apparently the law was written before the explosion of text messaging, and the legislature couldn't figure out a way to close the loophole in time.

Oh well. Baby steps. I'm delighted with this new law all the same.

Being a communication studies professor, I celebrate the widest possible range of opportunities for people to share their ideas. More media. More information. More good.

Good, that is, until you get behind the wheel. Then I'd prefer that all motorists focus solely on safe distances, reasonable speed, courteous merging, and all the other niceties that help us get from place to place with a minimum of bloodshed.

Heck, even assuming that mobile-phone addicted drivers arrive alive, I agree with research finding that car-talkers contribute to traffic by driving more slowly and reacting less quickly than they would without their phones.

So I'm glad to see the new law.

Yesterday I heard that cops practically lined up along Highway 17, a symbolic reminder that they'll be vigilant in their search for cell phone scofflaws.

At least person with whom I chatted was annoyed by the display.

Me? I love it.

No fan of excessive state power to constrain communication, I'm glad to see a little regulation on this front.

Mobile phones are a net positive in our lives. They help keep us connected to our loved ones, they allow us to stay safe in unfamiliar environments, and they're potential lifesavers in case of mechanical or natural problems. But the benefits of unnecessary mobile communication while driving simply fail to meet the costs in terms of safety.

What about hands-free devices? They're legal for drivers over 18.

Even those devices present a problem though, given research that shows how talking on a mobile phone constitutes a more significant driving distraction than holding the phone.

If only drivers would limit usage of that technology to brief calls regarding changes of plans or other necessary last-minute communications. That's my plan, at least.

I hope the people I see on the road today employ a similar approach.

Yes, we spend more and more time in our cars, thanks to worsening traffic conditions and our growing tolerance for commutes that previous generations could never imagine. Many of us therefore want to use that time in the car for conversation.

Yet our primary conversation while on the road must be nonverbal -- with the drivers around us -- not with distant friends and coworkers.

When we drive, we form a fluid community (or sorts): people who depend upon one another to be alert and aware. It's a delicate relationship transformed all too easily into something brutally intimate without proper communication.

Sure, mobile phones appeal to our occasional desire to be anywhere but "here." But when behind the wheel, here is precisely where we need to be.

So three cheers for California's new law. When it comes to traffic safety -- yours and mine -- I agree with Elvis. It's time for "A Little Less Conversation."

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