Attention Drivers: Your Car Is Not a Phone Booth

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As a New Yorker, I am happily removed from the perils of highway driving. And from what I'm hearing about some of the latest developments in driving habits I am in no hurry to rejoin the motoring hoards: It seems that millions of people are traveling our roads clutching cell phones to their heads, babbling incessantly and earnestly while swerving in and out of oncoming traffic. This, I feel safe in saying, qualifies as a dangerous situation.

Experts agree: According to the most recent hair-raising statistics, someone using a cell phone while driving is four times more likely to cause an accident than a driver who's DWP (driving without a phone). Federal oversight groups have now been formed to "investigate" these charges, which will probably result in new legislation sometime at the dawn of the next millennium.

Happily, not everyone's safety has been left in the hands of a glacially slow congressional committee (and the attentions of phone company lobbyists who see a considerable chunk of their clients' revenue disappear into thin air). One community has leapt to the defense of pedestrians and responsible drivers everywhere: On Friday, the township council of Marlboro, N.J., announced a ban on drivers' use of hand-held phones. And while the image of disapproving councilmembers might not inspire the fear and trembling required to convince errant drivers to pry their Nokias from their ears, perhaps the prospect of a $250 fine will do the trick.

Interestingly, it appears to be the physical action of dialing and holding the phone that causes the most significant distraction; Marlboro officials are still allowing citizens to zip down the highway chatting into a microphone-and-earpiece contraption. I would think that carrying on any kind of totally internalized conversation that tend to block out sounds like sirens, horns and the desperate cries of soon-to-be roadkill might be dangerous, but that's just me.

Anyway, the ban as currently constituted is a good start, though frankly I don't see why it should take any sort of law at all to end this silly habit. I realize that many Americans have managed to convince themselves that they are so important that no one should be deprived of their attention for any amount of time, no matter how minuscule. We carry not only cell phones these days but beepers and Palm Pilots and probably some other gadgets I haven't even heard of yet. And certainly in emergencies, or if you're a doctor, you need those things.

But aside from the occasional cardio-thoracic surgeon and possibly the President, there is no one in this country who shouldn't be able to drive to or from work without having to talk on the phone. If you do find yourself captive to your phone, do yourself and everyone else a favor. Throw it out the window of your car — in the driveway, please — and run the thing over a few times. Chances are, you'll feel much better. I know the rest of us will.