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Using Cell Phones in Cars Tests Our Social Contract

June 14, 2003|Jan Johnson | Jan Johnson is a writer in Simi Valley.

Legislation that would prohibit California drivers from using hand-held cell phones is moving through the state Legislature. Though I agree with the bill, it skirts the real issue.

People drive with their minds more than their hands. I've learned this as I ride my bike. I get a close look at the eyes of the cell-phone-talking drivers who encounter me. Their eyes drift toward me but they stare intently into an unknown place in their heads. They don't see me because their minds are focused on their conversation.

Then suddenly their brain joins their eyes in fixing on my colorful Laker jersey and yellow bike helmet, perched on top of a shiny red bicycle. Many times they grimace in horror and surprise. They understand their bumper is inches away from me and I've been trying to get out of their way. Sometimes I see their passenger shout at them to watch out for me.

Some folks insist they can talk on a cell phone and still drive safely. They say they cut urgent business deals and get important things done. But would you want to cut a deal with a person who was talking on a cell phone and driving? What details would they miss as they focused on the rear-view mirror?

The substantive issue in all of our distractions is this: Is my personal agenda more important than the well-being of others? Is it more significant that I do business now than that I remain a guardian of the safety of those on the streets where I maneuver a vehicle massively outweighing a human?

This issue moves beyond the passing of laws to what sort of society we propose to have or people we choose to be. It's part of the social contract: Am I willing to limit my freedoms for the well-being of others? Am I willing to forgo conveniences and advantages at times so that I not inflict harm on another? Will I weigh how my behavior affects others?

For myself, I've chosen not to own a cell phone. As a lover of efficiency, I would be unable to resist using it when I drive. I would violate the social contract as well as my own ethics just because I love to get things done.

This social contract issue became clear to me four years ago when I received my last speeding ticket. I was cutting through a neighborhood to get to the high school faster so I could pick up my son for a medical appointment. I was late. A police officer, knowing that parents took this shortcut, waited for me. When he stopped me, he asked, "Did you see that child down there on the corner?"

I had not seen that child. My mind had seen only this: my son waiting out in front of the high school wondering if I would ever show up; the two of us waiting longer at the physical therapist because we were late. All I saw was my schedule disrupted.

At that point, I'd already considered this social contract issue and decided in my mind that I would make an extra effort to drive safely in neighborhoods. As the ticket was being written up, I put my head on the steering wheel in regret. I went over the contract again: No person is less important than my schedule.

I remembered what my American history teacher in high school told us: This nation is an experiment in seeing if we can express personal freedom but also work very hard for the well-being of all. So although AB 45 is an improvement and may raise consciousness about how we regard others, it's time for all of us to cast our votes for the experiment of limiting personal freedom for the well-being of all.

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