Distracted Driving: Our Generation’s Road Rage?

Ray LaHood is “on a tear” about the issue of Distracted Driving. Is this a threat worthy of federal and media attention? Or does it reflect other fears we have?

“driving lol” flickr user pooka0059

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Ray LaHood, Secretary of the Department of Transportation has made a name for himself in the planning world by adopting livability standards and multi-modal transportation as part of the US DOT’s policy platform. But in the mainstream media, and on his jarringly sincere Twitter feed, Secretary LaHood has one true enemy, and one true cause: distracted driving.

Distracted Driving is generally self-descriptive, but in 2010 the meaning is clear: Driving While Paying Attention to Your Cellphone, In One Way or Another. What the crusade against Distracted Driving reminds me of most is the media crusade against Road Rage in the 90’s, which was brilliantly cut down to size by Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear. For those who got most of their news from places like 60 Minutes and Dateline in the 90’s, it might have seemed like our roads were no longer safe for ordinary citizens due to something called Road Rage. Flipping the bird no longer sufficed in the 90’s; drivers were routinely getting out of their cars and handling driving disputes mano-e-mano, or with guns.

As Glassner demonstrated in The Culture of Fear — and I’m paraphrasing his argument from memory, so forgive me — most of this was nonsense, a sexy trend piece gone wild. The mainstream media got great ratings bumps by running road rage stories, despite the fact that they lacked the statistics to back up the sensationalist stories. The myth of Road Rage has been persistent, in my experience.

Way back during my senior year of high school, I got a speeding ticket in Marin County, in the notorious San Rafael speed trap (a 20 MPH drop in speed limit with little signage). I pleaded guilty, and had to go to traffic school at University of San Francisco over one weekend. In a dimly lit lower-floor classroom, I sat with maybe 20 other offenders, to prove to the State of California that we were really, really sorry. I was surprised, then, to find out that we would spend a good couple of hours — of State-sanctioned time! — watching and discussing a 60 Minutes segment on Road Rage.

I decided that this classroom of middle-aged mainstream media sheep could use a wake up call, and I explained to them that I had just read this book, and Road Rage is nonsense, just a media stunt to scare people, not the epidemic we have been compelled to believe it is. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well, and I don’t think being the youngest person in the room by at least 15 years helped at all. The instructor was visibly upset; middle-aged hands went up all over the classroom. “I saw someone wave a gun at someone else on the Bay Bridge!”; “My cousin got punched by a crazed driver on Ocean Boulevard!”’ “A friend of a friend got a rock through his window ‘cause he didn’t pull out while taking a left off of Divisadero!” Etc, etc. Not one person in the room agreed with me, and they all had stories to back up the 60 Minutes piece.

I felt that my point had been proven: people enjoy and relate to trend pieces because of anecdotal evidence from their own lives. What they don’t know is that “stories” like Road Rage depend entirely on this sort of anecdotal evidence (think about the structure of a 60 Minutes piece), but present their “findings” as if they represent a real trend, or in this case threat.

Looking back now, it might be worth reexamining just why Road Rage is so persistent in our national consciousness, even if it isn’t necessarily real. I’d like to think that, perhaps, as our transportation infrastructure became overtaxed by a booming economy, population growth, and suburban expansion, road rage — as a compelling, “true”-seeming story — was a sort of manifestation of our frustration with congestion and traffic: the failing of our car-centric transportation system to deliver the freedom it promises. The suburban project failed not only to allow us the freedom to enter and leave the city as we please, its failure has let urban street crime creep towards the suburbs on our highways and byways.

So, bringing the discussion back to Distracted Driving, could this also be less a real problem with regard to driving, and instead a representation of some larger fear? Or at least an overblown trend? Well, let’s consider the fact that LaHood conducts much of his publicity about Distracted Driving on Twitter. Twitter is, perhaps, the best litmus test for the so-called “digital divide”. Your parents, regrettably, have probably figured out Facebook, but I doubt they’ve found a good use for Twitter. The way Twitter can potentially aggregate all your online activity (and real-life activity, with FourSquare) is great for those who might be inclined to do so, but a terrifying prospect for those who believe the digital is invading the real all too rapidly. And could this be what the fear of Distracted Driving is really all about?

Ideally, talking on your cellphone while driving should not provide a problem for those who have their corpus callosum intact; our linguistic and spatial-reasoning centers are on opposite hemispheres of our brain, able to operate simultaneously with no interference. But we all know from experience that those who talk on cell phones when they drive, drive worse. But the form their bad driving takes is categorically different from the way someone drives after, say, drinking a couple-few martinis. Distracted drivers are the ones who sit idle at a green light sending a quick text; they aren’t the ones careening around corners and taking off your rear-view mirrors.

But it’s true that the distraction generated by the proliferation of texting as a primary form of communication does provide a new threat. There are plenty of people stupid enough to text while driving, in fact I have to admit that I’m guilty of it (to my girlfriend after picking up a rental, “driving lol”). So, perhaps LaHood’s campaign against Distracted Driving has more legitimacy than the MSM’s Road Rage-fest of the 90’s. After all, what made Road Rage so scary was that it was out of your control; the threat of Distracted Driving is at least a little bit in your hands — just don’t text while you’re in a two-ton steel box moving 60 MPH!

Fortunately for us, it’s also easier to legislate against than Road Rage. If young drivers aren’t afraid of tapping “wat r u up to tn?” into their iPhone while flying down the highway, then maybe they’ll be afraid of a $300 ticket and a weekend in traffic school with people twice their age who saw this segment recently on 60 Minutes…

Either way, the US DOT will be holding their second national summit on Distracted Driving on September 21st. In the meantime, take a look at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s chart of the number of fatal crashes from 1994-2008, and try your best to imagine a graph that would show the number of fatalities steadily increasing with the invention of the iPod (2000) and Twitter (2006), and you might have a problem. The number is pretty constant.

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