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Should I call out my friends for using their phones while driving?

driver on phone
‘Many of us have the delusion that when we’re on our phones, we control them rather than the other way round.’ Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

A friend drove me to work the other day and, while she was driving, picked up a call on her cellphone. It was a short conversation and after she hung up, she apologized, but the episode left me feeling uncomfortable. Should I have called her out or am I overreacting?

I suspect you don’t need me to tell you that your nervousness is well-founded: the statistics on car accidents and phone use are incontrovertible. In 2015, approximately 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured, in car crashes caused by “distracted driving”.

So this should be a simple one. If a friend lit up a cigarette over your newborn, you would shriek at the friend to put it out. You wouldn’t hesitate to remind a driver to put on her seatbelt. But for some reason, casual phone use at the wheel is something that many of us either do ourselves, or tolerate when others do it, even though it is almost as dangerous as drinking and driving.

This reluctance is partly to do with sketchy enforcement. But it might also have to do with the relative newness of the technology and the delusion many of us have that when we’re on our phones, we control them rather than the other way round. It is universally understood that when you drink, you lose control, often while comically insisting you’re still capable; when you text or talk on the phone, by contrast, it is possible to persuade yourself that (a) you can break off at any minute, and that (b) you are not performance-impaired.

Experience tells us that neither of these things is true and yet we persist with the rationalizations: it’s just a two-minute call; I’m accustomed to multi-tasking; I’m really, really concentrating on the road. All of which is fine until another driver, also on his cellphone, behaves erratically in front of you and your delayed response time catastrophically alters the outcome.

When you are not the driver, these risks should strike you even more acutely. But this is where things get tricky. You either have a personality for admonishing people or you don’t, and your hesitation suggests you fall into the latter category. I understand; I feel the same way. The other day, I was in a taxi with someone who belongs, very emphatically, to a different personality type and every time the driver so much as glanced at his phone, she was banging on the screen yelling: “Guy! Hey, guy! Keep your eyes on the road.”

The appropriateness of addressing someone as “guy” in this context is debatable, but there’s no doubt that her impulse was correct, not least because there were three children in the back of the cab with us. Two of them were mine, and yet my first thought was to rationalize my reluctance to say anything; we were travelling in early evening rush hour at a speed of about three miles per hour; I was holding my children on my lap very tightly (not recommended by car safety experts! Ever!); it was a very short trip. Meanwhile, I felt bad for this guy, driving a cab all day while angry passengers shouted at him from the back. My fear of social embarrassment, it turns out, is deeper than my concern for my children, which feels like a useful thing to find out.

I need to get over it. In a few years, fatalities caused by phone use at the wheel will almost certainly have reached a critical mass and universal laws will be introduced, whereupon breaking them will become more taboo. In the meantime, it might be useful to remember – although I concede it is hard – that social awkwardness can’t actually kill you. If necessary, do yourself down with a lot of self-effacing caveats about what a neurotic fuss-pot you are and would she mind awfully indulging you. But bottom line, tell your friend it’s not on.

This article titled "Should I call out my friends for using their phones while driving?" was written by Emma Brockes, for on Tuesday 13 February 2018 09.00am


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