Saturday, December 20, 2008

On the Road

It seems like I've been doing a lot of driving in slow-moving traffic lately, and even though all that traffic made it take longer to get anywhere, it also gave me a lot of time to observe the behavior of other drivers. So that's what I'm going to write about today.

I'm not going to write about all the bad behavior I observed -- that would take me well into next year and it wouldn't serve any useful purpose. So I'm just going to mention one thing that I saw drivers doing repeatedly.

In case you don't know it, here in California a law was passed last July that made it illegal to drive while talking on a cell phone. Or to be more accurate, the law made it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving, unless a "hands-free device" is used.

So a lot of people bought bluetooth headsets -- those little things you stick on your ear that connect wirelessly to your cell phone. Some people only use them when they're driving and they want to make or receive a call, but other people put them on as soon as they get into their cars. And there are still others who wear them all the time, whether they're in the car or not. Those headsets make people look like dorks, so ever since last July, there have been a lot of people walking around in a state of almost permanent dorkiness.

But having people walking around with dorky-looking things coming out of their ears is a reasonable price to pay for fewer traffic accidents caused by inattentive cell phone users, isn't it?

If only things were that simple.

I'm not going to get into all the arguments about how hands-free devices don't reduce the number of cell phone-related traffic accidents, and I'm not going to talk about how your situational awareness decreases whether you're wearing a bluetooth headset or holding the cell phone to your ear. I'm not even going to argue the case that driving while using a cell phone increases your chances of getting into a traffic accident. Like most things, it's probably not so cut and dried. I think there are people who can manage to do both without causing any problems, while there are others who are likely to get into accidents even if they're not talking on the phone, just because they aren't very good drivers, or because they're stupid.

But here's the thing: Whether it's a good law or not, it's still a law. But you'd be surprised -- or maybe you wouldn't -- at how many people routinely and flagrantly break that law. I can't even count the number of people I saw driving while talking on a handheld cell phone.

Part of the problem is that if you get caught, it's only a $20 fine for the first infraction and $50 for subsequent infractions. It's not a lot of money, but you can get a decent bluetooth headset for between $20 and $50, and it's probably less expensive in the long run to buy one, unless you never get caught. And you're not likely to, since the police aren't likely to scour the roads hunting for violators. They're much more likely to look for people who commit big-ticket infractions like going over the speed limit and running red lights.

By the way, don't run red lights. Not only is it dangerous, but the last time I got pulled over for running one, the fine was $351. The officer didn't actually give me a ticket, since I didn't actually run a red light -- I went through while it was still yellow. I think he was confused because the moron in front of me stopped at the green light for some reason before turning right. Anyway, I didn't get the ticket, but the officer told me it was $351, and that was probably about five years ago -- it's probably a lot more now.

As for speeding, you'll have to decide this one for yourself. As with all vehicle code infractions, it's best not to speed if there are any cops around, but if there aren't, just use your own good judgment. The problem, of course, is that if you don't exceed the speed limit, you'll make a lot of drivers really angry, since the speed of traffic tends to be a lot higher than the posted limit.

So there's probably nothing wrong with speeding a little -- providing you don't get caught -- since the posted speed limits are usually a lot lower than they need to be. Of course, having said all that, I have to admit that speeding hasn't been much of an issue for me recently, since I've been driving in a lot of slow-moving traffic lately.