Pull over or shut up
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Bill Barth
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Why Americans are angry
 Here’s how old I am. When I was a kid growing up on a farm, we had an old telephone connected to a party line. When you picked up the receiver, if anyone else was on the line for a call, you heard the whole conversation. I think there were about a dozen houses on that particular party line.
     Now, back in those days, you might think it would have been considered impolite to eavesdrop. And you’d be right.
     But no one owned up to eavesdropping, even though everybody did it — especially the farm wives in the neighborhood. If they weren’t talking on the party line, they were listening in to whoever was carrying on a conversation. A sweet lady — really, she was sweet, just annoyingly chatty and nosy — named Helen was the champ. Helen could talk for hours, then spend hours more listening to anybody else who managed to fit in a call.
     My Dad would come in from the field, needing to place a business call. To put it mildly, Dad was not a patient man in those days. He’d turn six shades of purple when he would pick up the phone and, yes, there was Helen on the line. He’d wait a couple of minutes, try again and, sure enough, Helen, still jabbering away. A couple more tries and Dad would start looking downright homicidal.
     Finally, exasperated, he’d pick up the phone and say, “Helen, get off the line. I’ve got to make a business call.”
     And I’ll bet Helen listened in on every call he made, too.
That’s a long way of relating to readers that, from my earliest memories, I was drilled on the difference between necessary and unnecessary phone calls.
     So let’s talk about cell phones, distracted drivers and unnecessary conversations.
     Just a few years ago some people had mobile phones, but most did not. For certain, few tweens, teens and 20-somethings had cell phones.
In the not-so-distant past drivers were able to go from point A to point B without giving in to an irresistible need to talk to another person on the phone — let alone text somebody on a mobile device.
     Now, fast forward to today. Driving the streets and highways reveals an astonishing number of people behind the wheels of their vehicles, blabbing away on the phone or, worse, looking at their laps while they receive and send text messages.
     Logic suggests this inescapable conclusion: Since these conversations, just a few years back, did not take place at all, most of them today are completely frivolous and unnecessary. So why are they happening? Because they can.
     It has been well documented that Americans have become attention-deficit prone. Everyday life is becoming more like a video game — lots of noise and lights and flash — just to draw attention and send this simple message: Look at me! The cacophony of noise and the sheer volume of distractions makes it harder and harder to clear one’s head and get focused on anything.
     I think that’s what is behind the epidemic of yakking and texting by distracted drivers. These folks are just bored. The act of sitting behind the wheel and concentrating on the road and other vehicles around them is insufficient to hold their attention. So millions engage in the mobile phone equivalent of “wassup.”
     Their boredom threatens everybody else’s safety. According to a study by the U.S. Transportation Department 6,000 people died and half a million were maimed last year because of distracted drivers. Findings suggest the danger of cell phones rises to a level perhaps as bad or worse than drunk driving.
     When texting, according to the study, drivers are 23 times more likely to make a mistake and cause a collision than drivers who are focusing on the road.
     Usually, I don’t like the knee-jerk government urge to act as Americans’ nannies. I’m bothered by heavy-handed laws related to such things as individual seat belt usage or requiring that bikers wear motorcycle helmets.
     It’s a different issue, though, when a person’s behavior becomes a danger to others. Drunk drivers deserve tough treatment under the law. So do reckless speeders.
     The weight of the evidence is becoming overwhelming that yakkers and texters should be next.
     The problem is getting worse, too. Studies have shown there were 10 billion text messages a month in December 2005, and 110 billion texts in December 2008. And that’s before the latest surge of smart phone technologies and commercial applications.
     Mobile communication devices — calling them cell phones is so yesterday — will play a very large role in the information-based world of the future. But they do not have to play that role while the user is supposed to be controlling tons of metal moving at a high rate of speed.
     I say, let’s have a little Prohibition. To check that text or take that call, pull over. Your urge to gab is not worth the mortal danger posed for others.
     Make it the equivalent of click-it-or-ticket.
     Make it hang-up-or-pay-up.