Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Essays

We Drive with Heads, Not Hands
by Jan Johnson

While I’m glad states are considering legislation to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones, it skirts the real issue. People drive with their minds more than their hands. I’ve learned this during my daily exercise regimen as a 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. Tucked away in there, they don’t see me because their minds are focused on the faces of those they’re talking to and the details of the conversation. Then suddenly their brain joins their eyes in fixing on my colorful Lakers jersey and school bus 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. This, in fact, is the advantage of a driver having a conversation with a human in the car rather than a human on the other end of the cell phone. The one in the car often does see me and alerts the driver.

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? Would they ignore your question because their car made an odd noise? If you’re a kid asking Mom, the driver, for a ride at 3 PM, would you expect her to really show up? Or would she hear 4 PM because a car horn was honking?

The substantive issue in all of our distractions – cell phone use perhaps being the most scary -- is this: Is my personal agenda more important than the well-being of others? Is it more significant that I cut a deal 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 persons 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 forego conveniences and advantages at times so that I go the extra mile not to inflict harm on another? Will I weigh how my behavior affects others so that all of us animals can live in this zoo together? 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. I had not left on time. A policeman, knowing that we parents take this short cut, waited for me. When he stopped me, he said, “Did you see that child down there on the corner?” No, 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 had shown up 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 while AB 45 is an improvement and may raise consciousness about how we regard others, it’s time for all of us to cast our vote for the experiment of limiting personal freedom for the well-being of all.


This article originally appeared in the Saturday, June 14, 2003 issue of
The Los Angeles Times.


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