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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

An addiction we won't hang up on Add to ...

Not long ago, I nearly killed myself in the line of duty. I remembered that I had to call my editor before I left town. Unfortunately, I was behind the wheel in heavy traffic at the time. The last thing my editor heard was my husband yelling "Watch out!" as I almost sideswiped a car zooming up beside us.

My husband also likes to multitask behind the wheel. He likes to clutch his cup of coffee, fasten his seat belt and check in with the office all at the same time. It makes him feel efficient. If I dare to raise an eyebrow, he reminds me of the time I nearly killed us.

Everyone knows cellphones and driving are a hazardous mix. Ontario (along with several other provinces) has even passed a law to ban the use of hand-held devices while driving. As of next fall, people caught talking or texting could face a $500 fine. This is a clever way of pretending to improve road safety while not actually doing so. Hands-free phones will still be legal, despite a mound of evidence that shows they're no safer than the hand-held kind.

"It's not that your hands aren't on the wheel," says cognitive psychologist David Strayer. "It's that your mind is not on the road." For years, he's been putting people in simulated driving situations to find out what happens when they're distracted. He's found that talking on a cellphone increases the chance of having an accident by about four times. That's about the same risk level as driving drunk.

I'd never think of driving drunk. But I often think of calling Mom. That's what I was doing the day I turned left (on a red light I didn't see) across four lanes of traffic. I felt like a moron. Then there's the guy I know who rear-ended another car while thumbing his BlackBerry. Judging by what I observe every day, our stories aren't unusual. I now steer clear of cellphone yakkers even when they're on foot. Last spring, a young woman on a cellphone stepped out into downtown Toronto traffic and was run over by a van.

None of this is news. Canadian researcher Donald Redelmeier reported exactly the same findings back in 1997. U.S. highway safety researchers estimated that, in 2002, cellphone use by drivers caused 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents. According to The New York Times, the research was suppressed. Since then, every piece of legislation designed to restrict cellphones has merely nibbled around the edges. Even Canada's various medical associations can't bring themselves to call for a blanket ban. After all, legislators and doctors love their cellphones, too.

Today, more than 21 million Canadians use cellphones. Use is heaviest among the heavily connected upper middle class. We are convinced we could not survive without them. We insist we need to use them in the car to be productive workers and good parents. According to one study, four-fifths of cellphone owners say they use their phones while driving, and one-fifth confess to driving while texting. Another study found that, during daytime hours, 11 per cent of all drivers on the road are on the phone at any given time.

Safety groups keep arguing for an outright ban on phoning while driving. But it's far too late. We're too addicted. We're hopelessly dependent on our gadgets. We thrive on self-induced attention deficit disorder. Every time we phone or thumb or text or Twitter, we get what Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey calls a dopamine squirt. Our kids are even more hooked than we are. If they can't send a text message twice a minute, they go into withdrawal.

As for me, I've sworn off using my phone in the car for the time being. I want to live. The trouble is that the bandwidth available to us is infinite, but the bandwidth of our brains is not.

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