Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitchens' Voice Stilled

One of the four horsemen of the new atheist apocalypse, succumbed to cancer Thursday...

Christopher Hitchens, the author of God is Not Great, writer of wicked diatribes against Mother Teresa, and the only journalist I'm aware of who elected to be waterboarded to prove it wasn't torture - and then promptly and publicly changed his mind, died Thursday 15 December 2011, aged 62 years.

Blogs written by persons who knew him better are doing a fine job of eulogizing the man, his courage, and his voice.

Bad Astronomy

Why Evolution Is True

The Rogue's Gallery

Neurologica Blog


Token Skeptic

Sam Harris, another horseman, the youngest

Dan Dennett, another of the four horsemen, the least offensive

Richard Dawkins, the senior horseman (the "Witch-king of Angmar" if you will)

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Can You Hear Me Now?

The NTSB gets surprisingly serious about distracted driving...

In the aftermath of their investigation of a 2010 fatal accident involving a semi, a pickup, and two school buses, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has come down very hard on cellphone use while driving.  Their refreshingly crisp recommendations include:

To the 50 states and the District of Columbia:

(1) Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers; (2) use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration model of high visibility enforcement to support these bans; and (3) implement targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and enforcement, and to warn them of the dangers associated with the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving.

The response has been prompt and predictable.  It's unenforceable, it's not fair to me, and my gut tells me the science is wrong.

I'll bet none of us are in favor of drunk driving. Yet, in many studies drivers are as impaired by the use of personal electronic devices (including hands free) as they are by an illegal blood alcohol concentration. Distracted driving has joined DUI and speeding as a major risk factor for accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Impairment is impairment.

I agree a ban on hands free devices is all but unenforceable.  It's pretty hard to tell if the driver in the next car is on a conference call, singing along with Lady Gaga, or yelling at their kids in the back seat.  But what part of not allowing people to drive as though they're drunk or traveling at 20 miles per hour over the speed limit strikes us as unfair or unreasonable?

What we choose to do on our own time in our own cars is between us, our screaming passengers, our insurance company, and perhaps the local police.  But now that the NTSB has taken a stand it seems to me the challenge will arise when an employee is involved in an accident attributed to PED use while on the job or operating a company vehicle. If company business practices require use of a PED while in motion then OSHA and/or DOT will get involved, insurers run for cover, and litigators will have a field day. If company policy prohibits PED use in motion - and business practices reflect a commitment to the policy - then perhaps the employer will have some legal recourse.

I suppose the precise text of the NTSB recommendation "Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers" give law enforcment and other emergency services personnel some wiggle room with regard to radio handsets.

As for the science, we know that speed enforcement reduces the number and severity of accidents, even though there are some drivers who are safe as houses at 160 mph. We know that DUI enforcement reduces highway carnage, even though almost all of us know someone who once had too many drinks and still got home safe.  Yeah, my gut tells me texting is obviously worst, hand held next, and then hands free, but the research suggests they're all pretty distracting.

After reading some of the studies that support the NTSB's new recommendation I'm going to try to hang up and drive. If you call me and get a message saying that I don't answer the phone while I'm on the road I hope you'll understand.  There's way too much data out there telling us we're not nearly so good at multitasking as we think we are.

Some of us are old enough to remember life before personal electronic devices became 24 hour leashes. We managed to survive without cellphones then, just like our parents did before telephones, or our grandparents did before cars.  We're going to be okay even if we have to unplug for an hour or two a day while we pay attention to the road and our neighbors on it.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson