Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Traffic Sense and Sensibility

With apologies to Jane Austen, I found myself trying to make sense out of California’s current campaign to put real teeth into converting drivers to give up a passion for what many consider an entitlement: cellphone use while driving. Monday night’s news reported a full-court press on the issue rivaling the defense of UConn, which held poor Butler to under 19% shooting and a 41 point total offense for the National NCAA Basketball title.

This, after a report that fines for cellphone use, either by calls or texting, accounted for almost a $200,000 increase in revenues from traffic tickets in 2010. Yesterday, as I was on my way home from an audition, I tried to call home. I have a voice-activated Bluetooth connection in my car, so my attempt was perfectly legal. As was my intention; I was going to ask if Mary wanted me to pick up some potato salad to go with the Sloppy Joes I would prepare when I got home. But the call failed. Twice!

Having had a Bluetooth connection for about seven years in my cars, I was pretty sure that I just needed to reconnect the devise to make it work. But the feature that allows reconnection is disabled when the car is moving (good idea, that!) Did I pull off the road and reconnect? No. Luckily in California, during Rush Hour (in other words during sixteen hours of the day and night) traffic will accommodate you if you are patient, by coming to a complete halt for 30 seconds or so. If you can tolerate the blaring horn of the cars behind you, you can stretch that to a long enough period to make the connection, which I did.

Reconnected, I made the call and got the answer (yes!) before I made the final turn that would bypass the market. Reflecting on this, I felt that I was guilty of a nudge toward lawlessness, if only by intention.

I have a Radiologist friend who routinely drives solo in the carpool lane during his trip to work if it seems necessary. He feels he can afford the fine (A comment applied to my lighting a cigarette in the NYC Abercrombie & Fitch store fifty years ago. The clerk said, “We feel our customers can afford the fine.”) And that got me thinking that maybe the problem is that the punishment doesn’t properly fit the crime.

Some time ago, my son was broadsided by a moving auto while looking for a parking place in that same market where I bought the potato salad. At the time he had no cellphone and had to borrow one to inform me of the accident. Ironically, he borrowed it from the owner of the car that hit him, who had been summoned by the driver, who spoke no English. BTW a passenger had bailed from the scene by the time I arrived and well before the officer who responded to the call arrived, presumably in fear of the INS. The officer, my son and I had plenty of time to chat while waiting for the Accident Control staff, and the officer made three relevant points: first, my son was probably the only person in Southern California without a cellphone. Second, the most common traffic accident is in mall parking lots, and third, almost all involve the use of a cellphone.

The most interesting point to me though was how common it is to have a non-English speaking driver, who is driving someone else’s car, usually uninsured involved in an accident. Routine policy says that in these instances, the car is impounded. Impounded, with an initial cost to the claimant of $100+ a day plus towing charges and any relevant fines. Few cars are claimed and after 30-days are placed at auction. If this punishment does not serve as a deterrent, maybe we should find a better punishment. I think in the case of my friend, impounding his Mercedes would be a better deterrent than the $346 fine. I think an action against the license of the owner of a borrowed vehicle would be a deterrent of sorts against loaning your automobile, insured or not.

And I think there should be some way to more directly affect cellphone violators. That same accident-victim son teaches in a parochial elementary school where cellphones are confiscated if used during school hours. They are returned only after a parent comes in for counseling.

A few years ago, shortly after then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill making cellphone usage illegal while driving, paparazzi took several pictures of the governor’s wife, Maria Shriver, breaking the law. What kind of punishment might serve as a deterrent for our California drivers? And how could private citizens be part of the solution to the problem? Any thoughts or suggestions?

It’s a shame we can’t take a picture with our cellphone while we are driving.


  1. Personally, I wish Arizona would ban cell phone use while driving. Our fine lawmakers seem intent on banning almost everything and everyone, so why not incessant phone use?

    What I see all the time (and find the most disturbing) is the mom with a few kids in a giant SUV, driving with one hand so she can talk to someone about something that apparently is more important than her kids' safety.

    It took a few deaths to finally make texting while driving illegal but the fine is so low people don't care.

    Are we that desperate to stay in constant touch we can't go even a few minutes without a phone? It would seem so.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I'm still trying to figure out how observers like you and me could tun in abusers.