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I Can't Hear You: I've Got a Smartphone in My Ear (Oh, and I'm Eating, Reading and Driving)

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The very first precept of good driving is: Keep your eyes on the road. Yet the modern explosion in so-called smart phones -- the ones we Americans so love to text and sext on, whatever the weather -- along with a proliferation of distracting new "telematic" technologies offered by car makers to better cater to a generation of drivers raised on video games and attention deficit disorder medications -- has too many of us attempting to watch the road with one eye, while following the stock market, route guidance system, instant fuel economy readout and salty e-mail threads with the other, with an occasional pause to tweet, return a text, program a monster mix of 80s hair bands, or update our fantasy football roster. To say that this unprecedented wave of driver distraction poses a danger to life, limb and property is an understatement of the first order. Indeed, it's a wonder we're not all dead already. Yet I, for one, don't expect anything to change anytime soon. Here's why:

People can be remarkably stupid, given half the chance. And they are being given the whole chance. Then again, if the seemingly popular notion that the hands-free mobile phone or headset eliminates or meaningfully mitigates the risk of distracted driving sounds like the fanciful canard of free-spending telecommunication lobbyists -- the sort who ply easily bought politicians with campaign contributions in exchange for do-nothing legislation -- that's only because it is. States that make cell-phone use without hands-free attachments illegal while allowing other cell-phone use to carry on unabated, not only appear to be doing something, they're also obsoleting old equipment, helping carriers sell more new phones and extra attachments. And yet the risk persists largely unabated, as studies show drivers remain dangerously distracted, whether their hands are on their phones or not.

For their part, car makers have been adding new and increasingly complex electronic features to their offerings like greedy aerospace contractors turned loose in a Pentagon procurement frenzy. Ever anxious to differentiate their products from their competitors', car makers are, at the same time, desperate to keep up with the latest features. They'll continue to screw around with voice-activated commands, though in my experience such systems have a 15% chance of working properly at the current state of development and usually require you to take your eyes off the road more than if you'd just had to press a button or turn a dial in the first place. One thing is certain: you won't see car makers voluntarily removing functions that consumers might want or other manufacturers might offer.

Thus, with the automobile and telecommunication industries and legislators and popular opinion all hopelessly mired on the wrong side of this issue, I fear that the inundation of drivers with ever-mounting possibilities for multi-tasking distractions is inevitable, a malevolent genie that will not be put back in the bottle. And while more pro-active legislatures may try to discourage people from such behaviors around the margins -- making them illegal, as if that ever stops anyone from doing durn fool things in and with their moving automobiles -- the carnage must surely mount.

Which seems incredibly irresponsible. That is, until you remember that the ultimate plan -- in advanced development departments of the academe, government and car makers -- has always been to automate highways, taking drivers out of the equation altogether. Ignoring how sad this will make us old-timers who like to drive our own cars, we can expect some resulting decline in individual accidents, as people are freed to shop on-line, dine, natter and info-tain themselves to their hearts' content with no harmful consequences, as a central computer regulates highway flow and keeps cars from colliding with pedestrians, stationary objects and each other. While the carriers and electronics giants earn untold additional riches, the citizenry will travel merrily along at 100 mph, safely routed to conserve energy and maintain efficient traffic flow. Except every once in a while, 700 people will die when the mainframe glitches or the code fails and 1,300 cars exit the Jersey Turnpike at the same time at high speed to hit the same space in the parking lot of the same McDonald's, to visit the same bathroom.

Driving is a dangerous game. Always has been, always will be.

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