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Shut Up and Drive?

You would have thought the National Transportation Safety Board had launched an all-out attack on motherhood: Last night, we got word that NTSB is recommending a total ban on cell phone use in cars. The radical part of the proposal is that it would include hands-free phoning; no state has gone that far.

I can’t see these recommendations being enacted, but at least NTSB has provoked the right conversation. Because it turns out that the hands holding the phone aren’t the problem, it’s the chit-chat itself. But if in-car yakking is the problem, why not muzzle the passengers and turn off the radio? And, for the love of God, will someone please make the kids in the back seat shut up?

But not all conversation is the same. Radios can, I’m told, be turned off. Passengers can be asked, at first politely and eventually escalating to a scream, to clam up — indeed, most will instinctively do so when they see that the driver’s full attention is needed for some task (for instance, driving). Caution: not effective with children. The person on the other end of a phone, though, doesn’t know what’s going on in the car and drivers are often reluctant to tell them. They get caught up.

So will limiting cell phone use to hands-free models do any good at all? Yes, because it will also stop texting. As it is now, texting bans are useless without a ban on hand-held cell phones — because unless the cop is peering directly into the window (and what’s he doing there?), the driver can always claim to have been dialing, not texting.

And texting is the thing we really need to stop. Here’s a strategy I tried on my niece: When she told me she sometimes texted while driving, even though she knew she shouldn’t, I told her that I had an idea for safer driving:

Stop texting and consume a fifth of whiskey. You’ll be better off, statistically speaking. Given that her generation has been drilled — constantly and to some good effect — about the perils of drinking and driving, this message might click.

Please text the link to this post. But pull over first.

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