Thursday, December 10, 2009

Digitus Impudicus

By Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO

dangerous driving in the rain - tips
Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr, used under the Creative Commons License.

It wasn’t until the woman driving the Range Rover in the next lane raised her digitus impudicus that I realized I had been glaring at her. It was on the way to work this morning, driving south on Monaco Parkway; we were driving side by side while she read her email using an iPhone. Any other day I might have admired her talent but that day's feature article in The New York Times was on my mind. The article, a full three columns on the front page, revealed how from the start those engineers who developed car phones knew they were going to be a hazard. One early developer, Martin Cooper suggested locking the dials while driving. This was back in the early 1960s.

By 2007 the government estimated that 11% of drivers were talking on their phones at any given time. Harvard researchers estimate that during 2002, drivers using cell phones caused 2,600 fatal crashes and 570,000 accidents. It’s unlikely that any of these statistics have improved. More people are using phones and with texting and other new uses for these phones, accidents have most likely increased.

It was these numbers that I was trying to fathom as I watched this young woman adeptly use her index finger to scroll down the screen on the phone as she pinned it to the steering wheel with the other hand.

Large number of fatalities invariably get translated in my mind into multiples of the 9/11 deaths. For example the yearly mortality in the US due to lung cancer is equivalent to 108 twin towers lined up and falling like dominoes. Cell phones now account for a pair of towers collapsing annually.

Thinking of those towers as we paralleled our way down the road, I probably wasn’t smiling. I was wondering why we make such a fuss over terrorists and barely notice these insidious causes of death. What’s the difference? Terrorists kill us for political and religious reasons. Businesses can ignore the fact that they kill us because they make a profit. The later is ok and the former isn’t? A 166,000 people die from lung cancer every year, almost all a direct result of smoking cigarettes, and it no longer makes the news. At least with cigarettes we can pretend there was a time when we didn’t know they were dangerous.

But cell phones? No one pretended that talking on the phone would make cars safer. One needn’t be a rocket scientist or a Bell Laboratory engineer to realize they would increase the risks of driving. Using hands free phones are still risky but handheld phones are four times as dangerous. While she read and responded to email on a tiny touch screen, I don’t want to guess how much this woman increased our collective risk of having a bad day, a really bad day.

Why do we tolerate these pernicious incursions on our health and safety? Our patients come to us worried about how much vitamin E they should take, whether coconuts are healthy for them and other relatively trivial questions. Using a cell phone while driving is more likely to kill them than bisphenol-A or any of a dozen other things we put so much effort into protecting them from. Some days we might do everyone more good by becoming public advocates, making it harder to smoke and making it difficult to talk and drive. We could count the lives we save by the thousands.

Why is it so easy to look the other way? There was a brief flurry a few years back of bumper stickers that read, “Hang up and Drive.” The sentiment never took hold, perhaps because phone receivers no longer exist. The generation that needs to hear the message most has never ‘hung up’ a telephone.

I called a colleague last week at a time we’d prearranged. I caught her in the car ferrying her kids somewhere. I can’t name anyone I know who shuts off their phone when they get in the car. These are people who would go hungry rather than eat trans-fatty acids. There’s a disconnect here.

It is time to shift public perception. Talking on the phone in the car is no longer ok. It’s no longer multi-tasking, it’s no longer being efficient and productive. It’s being stupid. It’s sociably unacceptable, or at least it should be. As doctors we have a responsibility to teach our patients. Let’s teach this lesson by example and shut off our phones while we drive.

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