That scold rings loudly in my ears.  It came almost daily from Sister John the Baptist, my first grade teacher at St. Matthew’s School in Baltimore as she herded her charges into rows of two for the march to the cafeteria.  All these years later, I can see her stern glare and ominous habit as she patrolled the line for miscreants who had the temerity to whisper “I need to pee” or something similar.

That memory came rushing back to me as I heard the news of the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation that all mobile phone use in cars be banned.  NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman may be the second coming of Sister John, barking to all within earshot “No Talking!”  She followed this with a comment in an interview that she knew the ban would be unpopular, but that this was not about a popularity contest.  Well that’s certainly clear.  A nag like this likely had a tough time in high school and is getting her revenge on the popular kids now.

Frankly, Ms. Hershman trivialized the issue and exposed her foolishness with her comment.  We are far beyond questions of popularity in the discussion of cell phone use in cars.  We are talking about a vital technology that has advanced to the point where people depend upon the ability to reach out to family, advise them of whereabouts when encountering delays, engage in commerce and do the thousand other things that comprise daily life in a modern society.  Besides, does anyone reject the reality that manufacturers and service providers are keenly focused on safety and developing all manner of hands free devices and applications that reduce the potential for driver distraction.

Ms. Hershman used the “D” word repeatedly in her argument in favor of the ban.  What she failed to discuss was whether her ban would eliminate driver distractions that by her calculus should be considered every bit as dangerous as mobile devices.  Here’s one example.

On my daily commute from Baltimore to Washington, I drive a stretch of highway that has (I counted) 17 signs within the space of one mile.  Among these are an overhead electronic message board which requires that drivers take their eyes off the road, look up and read three lines of type that often include abbreviations that require you to pause and think about what is meant.  A little further in this corridor is a radar activated speed sign that flashes your speed as you approach.  This requires that you take your eyes off the traffic in front of you, glance at the flashing numbers, look down at your dashboard, discern which of the large dials is the speedometer and not the tachometer, check your speed against the sign and then return your eyes to the road ahead.  All that takes a few seconds, perhaps, but certainly enough time to create the potential for an accident.  The remainder of the signs advise of construction related detours, exit names and numbers, mileage to upcoming destinations and more.

Will all those distractions be eliminated as well?

While we are at it, what about the radio?  Must that be ripped out along with your iPod?  What about your kids’ back seat video system that is controlled from the front seat?  Chuck that in the garbage too and then be distracted by the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from the child seats in back.  But truly, we have not even begun.

Rip out the heater and the AC.  Adjusting the temperature, pressing the right buttons, setting the fan speed dials and directing the vents is inherently dangerous and definitely distracting.  Would Ms. Hershman advise that “This is not about a popularity contest.  If you sweat and stink that is far better than risking an accident.”

But wait, there’s more.  What about those seat adjustments?  Dare not get uncomfortable and reach down to adjust your position or give yourself a little more legroom.  If you do, you are not paying attention, Mister. (Another favorite scold of Sister John’s.)  Take out the blinker switches, the wiper arms and the headlight buttons too.  If it gets dark and you need to take your eyes off the road to turn on the headlamps, then you should ask yourself whether you should be out after dark at all.

If you think this rant borders on the ridiculous, then check out the recommendation of Baltimore County State Delegate Dana Stein.  He took up the Hershman challenge immediately recommending  that it be a crime – a CRIME – if someone is eating, drinking or smoking in the car.  Since those activities would in the eyes of the law constitute distractions, drivers would be guilty of the crime of Distracted Driving.  He has a bill he plans to introduce to accomplish just that!

No one argues in favor of texting while driving and that is not the point here.  Far from it.  That would be like suggesting that it is OK to read a newspaper while driving, something I actually have observed during my daily commute.  But if we are at the stage in our society of criminalizing anything and everything, we have gone way beyond the point of reason.

How about a stepped up anti-texting public education campaign?  These have proven effective in the past.  According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, well-designed fully integrated public education campaigns have been demonstrated to reduce smoking among young people by as much as 40 percent.  A 2010 study in The Lancet found that mass media anti-tobacco campaigns are associated with a decline in youth starting to smoke and an increase in the number of adult smokers who quit.

And what about distracted policing?  Are we really ready to start taking our cops away from true crime prevention so they can pursue people for talking in their cars?  I can tell the cops the location of an open air drug market I drive past on a regular basis.  They seem already too distracted to tackle that one.

We can and should accept that we live in a modern society in which technology plays a vital role.  That technology includes the ability to communicate in ways that actually increase our safety, enhance our ability to “See Something and Say Something” or respond to the Amber Alerts that are so frequently posted on those overhead message boards even if we do so from our cars.  Hands-free technology is fast becoming ubiquitous and it will only get better over time.  Let’s work on better education and awareness and less government intrusion.

And Ms. Hershman can yell “No Talking” all she wants.  Sister John the Baptist did it better.

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