Tech Files mailbag: Cell phones, cars and distracted driving

I often receive email from readers of my Tech Files column who are looking for advice or recommendations or just want to comment on my pieces. From time to time, I’m republishing edited versions of these question-and-answer exchanges and reader comments here on SiliconBeat.

My latest column, on smart cars as a possible solution to the issue of people using cell phones while driving, generated a lot of feedback from readers, much of it negative. Here is a sampling of some of the comments, and my responses.

READER: Today’s column really stunned me. I can’t believe you gave this much serious thought.  What the message of this column boils down to is “I know the way I use my cell phone in my car is annoying to others and dangerous … but I really don’t care and don’t intend to change.”

All I can say is that what all of us do out there on Bay Area roads and freeways is not a video game that we can simply restart if it goes badly.  I sincerely hope that none of your admittedly dangerous actions ever results in an accident that takes the life of another person.

Careless use of cell phones, smart or otherwise, is just plain dangerous on the road.  I used to do it myself, but after a few incidents of realizing that I was seriously distracted, I gave it up. The risk just isn’t worth it.

TECH FILES:  I think the column may have come across as more flippant than I intended.

Distracted driving is, of course, a serious issue. People can and do get hurt or even die because they or other drivers are not paying attention to the road. That issue has become arguably worse with the advent of cell phones and now smartphones.

In my daily driving and walking, I see lots of folks using their cell phones while driving. They’re talking on them. They’re looking down at them at stop lights. They’re using them on their laps as they drive.

My point in bringing up my own use of my cell phone in my car was not to dismiss the seriousness of the issue. Instead it was to show that I’m just like these other people I’ve seen, that I have first-hand experience with the problem.

The use of cell phones while driving is an issue that we as a society need to figure out. It’s easy to argue that people should just put down their phones. And, despite the tone of my piece, I generally agree with that sentiment and try to practice it myself (not always succeeding, as my piece indicates). But from what I’ve seen, people generally aren’t doing that. In fact, from what’s I’ve seen, despite preaching about this issue and even criminalizing certain uses of phones in cars, the issue has gotten worse, not better.

The column focused on one possible solution: smarter cars. As I mentioned in the piece, I’m not convinced that that’s the answer. But I’m really not sure what is a realistic answer. Because from where I’m sitting, people are going to continue using their phones in their cars — despite efforts to stop or discourage them.

READER: I can’t believe your comment in today’s newspaper about your cell phone. You say it is dangerous and “in some cases it is illegal.” Don’t you live in California where it is indeed illegal?

TECH FILES: I’m no lawyer, but from having read and reported on the hands-free laws, they aren’t as clear-cut as you suggest.

It is clearly illegal under California law to, while driving, talk on your phone while having it in your hand or held to your head against your ear. It’s also clearly illegal to manually type out text messages (or email or instant messages or the like) on your phone while you drive.

When I have spoken on the phone without a hands-free device while driving, I was breaking the law. Likewise when I have sent text messages or typed on my phone while driving.

I actually seldom do either one of those things. I have a hands-free calling system in my car, which I typically use when I drive. (My wife’s car doesn’t have such a system; when I’ve talked and driven, it’s in that car, which I don’t often drive.) And I rarely feel the need to text while driving.

Beyond talking and texting, other actions seem to fall into a legal “gray zone,” as local lawyer Scotty Storey puts it.

There is a clear exception in California law that allows drivers to tap in a phone number on their phone (or select one from their address book) while driving. And there’s nothing specific in the law — at least as far as I can see — that forbids drivers from, while driving, holding their phone to find a song to play or from manually advancing the directions on a map application.

In fact, I don’t think there’s anything specific in California law that would forbid a whole host of things that people do on their smartphones and could potentially do while driving, such as play games, watch movies, check Facebook, etc. As I read it, the hands-free sections of the law are pretty specifically focused on talking on the phone and texting.

As Storey notes, some traffic courts are broadly interpreting the hands-free laws, arguing that they cover such actions. But it’s not clear whether they really do.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that any of these are wise things to do while driving. Nor am I arguing that they wouldn’t be dangerous. What I am saying is that they aren’t clearly illegal.

READER: Guilty as charged and admitted by you on not putting down your cell phone when driving. Whether a smart car allows you to not worry about using your smartphone is not really that good. The driver is still distracted by the technology.

So if you want to have a long life and career writing for the Mercury News, put the phone in the console and close it up. You will not miss anything that important while driving.

TECH FILES: I’m trying … but it sure is hard to put down at times.

And, as I mention in the column, I agree with you. The evidence I’ve seen indicates that even when used “hands-free” a phone is still very distracting.

READER: You have now (with today’s confession) officially joined the tragic world of addiction, never to comprehend fully the joy of  reflection and flight of thought. Today I will observe a moment of sad  silence in recognition of the demise of your past freedom.

TECH FILES: See, I figured that it took reflection to observe my own actions and to acknowledge the problem with them.

(Photo courtesy of Apple.)

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (226 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.