Friday, January 2, 2009

Look Ma

The big LCD traffic advisory signs over the Long Island Expressway have lately been advertising the DOT's "511" service for accessing travel information from your cell phone. The display alternates between advising you to "DIAL 511 FOR TRAVEL INFO" and reminding you to "USE HANDS-FREE CELL PHONE WHILE DRIVING" (those might not be exactly the wording they use, but that's the gist).

That second message is the end result of 2001 legislation that prohibits cell phone use on the road in New York unless you use a hands-free device. It is now common knowledge that talking on a hands-free phone while driving is just as dangerous as talking on a handset. Even the DOT website acknowledges as much, and yet there's the LCD sign up there, telling you how to comply with the letter of the law while continuing to place yourself and your fellow road users at unnecessary risk.

The legislation in question was originally drafted as a ban on all non-emergency cell phone usage while driving, which makes sense: you can't force drivers to pay attention to the road, but you can remove some of the most obvious distractions. But the cell phone service industry lobbied hard against it, since they "sell" a lot of "minutes"1 to drivers who are (quite openly) trying to distract themselves from a monotonous commute.2

The resulting "compromise" is that you can still talk on your phone in the car, but you have to use a "hands-free microphone" accessory. It's a double victory for the phone companies, since they keep their bored commuter market and also sell more licensed hands-free accessories.

It sucks that this kind of lobbying can be successful. You can see that even though most people (even if they consider themselves an exception) can understand that talking on any kind of phone distracts people from driving, there's no way that that kind of broadly-held awareness can coalesce into any kind of organized lobbying interest that can compete with the phone industry. But I guess you'd hope that enough legislators would take their jobs as representatives of the people seriously enough that they would take up the public's side and recognize that yeah, even though cell providers make money off of it and would hate to lose that lost revenue, really everyone else would be better off if we got phones out of drivers' hands, so too bad, suck it up.

And maybe the compromise law is better than nothing, because now that it's on the books it can be amended to ban all cell use, or maybe challenged in court as not fulfilling its stated purpose (is that a thing?). Who knows. But it sure seems as though, with the DOT is basically running publicly funded ads encouraging drivers to use their (hands-free!) phones, the legislation as passed is worse than none at all.

1 How this can even sound like a plausible basis for an industry in the first place is a mystery in itself.

2 Note also that this whole situation arises as people attempt to lessen the burden of tedious automobile commuting. A much better response would be to figure out how to alter our world so that so many people don't need to drive so far to work every day.

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