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Here and Now

Stuck? Don't call me

When bored motorists dial while driving, their friends suffer.

August 04, 2005|Alison Manheim | Special to The Times

RECENTLY, the British Medical Journal published a study of Australian drivers that found that those using cellphones were four times as likely to be seriously injured in an auto accident. The study also found that there was no difference in risk among those drivers who used hands-free or hand-held devices.

There was no mention, however, of a little-known statistic I discovered without input from either the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (which conducted the Australian study) or the citizens of Perth, Australia: You are also four times more likely to annoy the friend you call from your cell while you're on the road.

Blame the dreaded L.A. commute for the rise of a new kind of cellphone abuse, one that's as annoying in its own way as other, more entrenched, forms of bad cellphone behavior (loud talking in the movies, in line at the bank, at the carwash, etc). In fact, there's a similar self-satisfaction among the people who feel the need to talk and drive at the same time.

Freeway talkers may think they're being virtuous by multi-tasking in the car, but what about the homebound or deskbound friend on the other end of the line who gets stuck enduring what is clearly a time-killer conversation?

While you're stewing in traffic, we're forced to experience your commute vicariously.

Those of us who work at home bear the brunt of these calls, since no one believes we really work anyway. We're sitting ducks for those who love to yak and drive.

Caller ID is no help in this matter, as you can't tell from the display whether the call will be a quickie ("I'm in Trader Joe's. Did you want hummus with or without garlic?") or a play-by-play, in real time, of traffic conditions on the 405.

My friend Teresa has been the recipient of these calls from a doctor pal who uses her time in traffic to catch up with "friends."

"It's as if she thinks her time is so valuable because she's a doctor, while mine is worthless because I work in marketing!" Teresa says.

How can you tell when you've been unwittingly sucked into a time-waster call? Hint: You're privy to what teachers of creative writing refer to as an "interior monologue."

The call sounds something like this: "Ooh, I just saw one of those new Dodge Magnums go by. It was kind of an off-white, beige-y color. What do they call that, ecru? You know, the color of that couch you had in your apartment in Los Feliz. Remember, the one where you had that landlord who wore those big shorts?"

These kinds of calls can actually make you nostalgic for the eternal "Thank you for holding," message of Apple technical support.

Another clue is that you find yourself wondering, "How many other people's voice mails did she get before she reached me?" And then, "Does she have anything to tell me, or is she just killing time?" followed by, "Did she ever really like me, anyway?" And on and on into a downward spiral of self-loathing.

I'd like to remind those who drive and dial that being a grown-up comes down to impulse control. When shopping, it's asking yourself, "Would I buy this chartreuse D&G turtleneck wetsuit even if it wasn't on sale?" Similarly, when you find yourself in the car with itchy fingers and free evening or weekend minutes, ask yourself, "Would I make this call from the comfort of my living room?" If the answer is no, why not use the time instead to think deep thoughts, such as "Why do I work in Pasadena if I live in Redondo Beach?"

Like the diet guides that advise practicing "mindful eating," I suggest that you practice "mindful dialing." I've never understood the people who read scripts while they're on the elliptical trainers at the gym. Is a little time for being alone with one's thoughts so terrifying? Is self-reflection something to be avoided as strenuously as trying on bathing suits in a fluorescent-lit dressing room at Robinsons-May? Apparently, yes, or they wouldn't have installed TV monitors in the checkout line at Ralphs.

My friend Mike, who works in "the industry," claims that the car is the only place he can really talk, since "work and home are so crazy, what with the phones ringing off the hook." This excuse only serves to make me feel like more of a loser, since at my house, the phones don't ring with the same frequency. Hardly at all, really, unless you count those cheery telemarketers for the L.A. Philharmonic. Note to the folks at the Phil: I love the new hall and I'm crazy about Esa-Pekka, not to mention Shostakovich. But the traffic from Venice to downtown on a Friday night is murder. I promise to call you back, though. From the car.

Alison Manheim can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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