I Have Thumbs For A Reason

Texting while driving is the new most dangerous thing to do while driving. When I was growing up, it was drinking alcohol. Our school had visits from Students Against Drunk Driving and police officers to enlighten us as to the dangers of deliberately impairing our judgment and then attempting to drive a vehicle. Point well taken, which is why I am always the designated driver whenever out with friends. Now the cellphone is taking its place at the top of the deadly pile. And it’s partly the fault of short-sighted and common-sense depleted cellphone manufacturers. The rest is our own individual short-sightedness.

The total blame on cellphones use (texting, talking, etc) for accidents is only partially warranted. Anything that distracts a driver from the primary task of driving could be vilified in the same manner if you wanted to pursue it:

1. Your fancy GPS. Its fancy screen and last-minute instructions (“merge into right lane NOW”) often get in the way of good old-fashioned know-where-the-hell you’re-going.

2. Paper maps. Why do they have to write the street names so small? And why is the side I need to see always folded up in some kind of origami fortune-teller pattern?

3. Bees. My aunt once crashed a car because a bee was in her vehicle. Instead of pulling over, she tried to swat it while driving and failed to succeed at either task. Since cellphones piss off bees, the threat from this distraction is becoming more limited.

4. Annoying passengers. You can always hang up on someone who’s getting on your nerves if you’re using a phone while driving. You cannot silence an annoying passenger short of popping their door open, unbuckling their seatbelt and slamming into a hard left turn.

5. Billboards. Not so much a problem on interstates where there is room and curves are not sharp, but in town where a witty sign can distract you long enough to slam into a car that 4 seconds ago was not stopped.

6. Summer apparel. Extremely attractive people in limited clothing are strategically placed near stop signs, traffic lights, and hidden police cars. Not much you can do for the signs or lights, but you may be able to elicit sympathy from the officer by saying “But did you see what I was looking at?”

Anything that is not directly associated with the operation of a motor vehicle is by definition, a distraction. Why are cellphones picked out of the bunch? Who knows, probably because everyone needs a scapegoat, especially one that’s popular. But the national movement against cellphone use while driving is going the wrong way. People are not by any means going to give up their phones. If any lawmakers are reading this (they really should, since I’m so in touch with the pulse of America), please realize that this is an uphill battle, and not one you can win like Mt. Suribachi.

Mandating that hands-free sets be used for vocal conversations does not do anything to help with reaction time. People don’t crash because they were doing the Macarena with their hands off the wheel. They crash because they reacted too slowly, neglected to use the brake in time or zigged when they should have zagged. In most cases, reactions start with the eyes, goes through the brain and ends up in the hands and feet. You see crap, you think “Oh crap!” and then you try to avoid crap. Until someone invents a “brain-free” cellphone set that only allows soothing conversations, we’re still going to have the same accidents due to slow reaction times. Please remember this in your next session on The Hill.

I can state right now without doing any research that using a cellphone DOES detract from your ability to make quick decisions while driving. Like when the person in front of you at the store can’t hang up the phone for 27 seconds to swipe their credit card and stares blankly at the screen trying to figure out what button to hit for credit/debit (hint: the one marked “credit/debit”), that same person will lock up their brain for a few precious seconds on the road where it counts most. This individual is geared towards one thing at a time. They may be incredibly good at that one thing but don’t give them even a suggestion of a second task or those gears will grind to a halt.

On the other hand, there is the automotive astronaut. This person either just retired from NASA, or they were blessed with a quad-core brain. They’re so good at managing multiple tasks, they can sing the National Anthem in Swedish, eat a turkey sandwich and navigate a Grand Prix road course all while sending a text message in Kanji. While everyone who owns a phone believes they possess this quality, fewer than 0.00765% of the driving population is capable of such calculations. Like stated before, they’re often fighter pilots, astronauts, race car drivers or cops (You ever look inside a police cruiser? They’ve got a laptop, a CB radio and a cell phone going at the same time and they still don’t run people over).

Most people are somewhere in the middle. They’ll still experience brain lock in certain situations but it will not last nearly as long as the single-tasker. They’ll still be able to operate a phone and a car, but not with the seamless precision as the astronaut. So we can confidently say that some people are just not wired to do anything but drive. That’s all their brain processor can handle. Again this is not an indictment, but a fact; there’s nothing wrong with being of singular focus. But it does require everyone to look in the mirror and say “Hey, maybe I need to pay attention to driving so I don’t kill people.”

There I said it. People are irresponsible for putting their own need to run their mouth or let someone know that they’re literally LOL’ing ahead of the safety of others. It’s their fault for not being born with the reflexes of Rusty Wallace. Although individuals are to blame for being distracted while driving, phones themselves make up a substantial share of that blame. The manufacturers know it’s an important issue but instead of saying “Hmm, let’s come up with a way to create a phone that’s easy to use while driving, since we’ll corner the market on safety”, they say “Hmmm I wonder if we can make this thing even smaller since the only thing real people care about is if their phone looks tiny in their pocket.”

Every smartphone, nee cellphone ever built is made for 3 very select markets.

  1. 12-17 year old girls…with tiny hands.
  2. 21-35 year old city dwellers who don’t have cars…with tiny hands.
  3. Techno junkies who have to have the latest whatever-they-tell-me-to-buy…with tiny hands.

Beyond that, smartphones are a rough fit for the various populations who are not being attended to. They are a classic example of what happens when you fund technology that’s cool to advertise, but awful to use functionally (disclaimer: I’m not talking about the operating systems or apps, or menus, but the ability to use it in a variety of situations, hence functionality). Got arthritis? Live in a cold climate? Have manicured fingernails? Got big hands? Screwed, screwed, screwed, and definitely screwed.

Early cellphones, before they became smart, had these things called buttons. Many of you don’t remember those because you live in a world increasingly dominated by the touchscreen. I love to fondle a smooth piece of plastic as much as the next person but touchscreens have several fundamental problems for a society reliant on cellphones. To keep this post short, I’m going to focus on the most important and dangerous one. Lack of tactile feedback.

Don't laugh. It works...for what I need it for. Which is really nothing.

If you want to click on a link with your computer mouse, you push down on either the right or left button and it opens. You don’t even have to look at your hand because you felt the “click” of the button hitting the detent. Okay, now let’s get rid of all that noisy clicking and join the future. It’s a touch sensitive mouse, which means that in order to click on something, you just push on the mouse where the button used to be. If you think about it, things just got a little more complicated. Now you’re forced to look at the mouse to see where your finger is and to make a conscious effort to not hit the virtual button unless you really want to. With no feedback it is very hard to utilize this device without looking at it until gaining substantial practice.

Transfer this idea to a phone and you can see why texting while driving is becoming increasingly more hazardous. Where people used to be able to feel their way around a keypad and send a message without looking, now they are forced to look at their phone to see if they are hitting the correct keys. Furthermore, they cannot hold it comfortably in one hand and type with a single finger or thumb, but need to hold it with two hands, resulting in that awkward steering we’ve all seen as they sashay in the lane(s) next to us…knuckles and wrists on their part and a lot of hoping/praying on our part that they don’t have to maneuver quickly. Even with practice, there is no practical way to use a touchscreen that is not part of the vehicle (i.e. requires you to hold it) without sacrificing significant amounts of situational awareness.

Touchscreens in non-dynamic environments on the other hand can be useful. The fact that some people like them a lot is reason enough for manufacturers to justify making them. The amount of practice gained in mastering these arcane devices is why some people who swear by iPhones and others who swear by Galaxy and still others who swear by the Droid are so dedicated to their chosen system. They took a lot of time to learn how to live in the magical world of the touchscreen and for that, a weird loyalty has been forged. It would have been nice if the phone designers had realized that we are in 2011, not Stardate 43419.7. There are real-world issues to using a touchscreen (besides the fact that nobody on Star Trek ever had dirty hands, wore gloves, or ate spare ribs).

What would be wrong with having a rocker switch on the side of an iPhone to be a mechanical backup for scrolling and zooming? Lobsters are laughing their tails off in the tank at the restaurant watching us do that stupid claw motion trying to zoom in on an internet page while waiting for our Admiral’s Feast. Why not have a hat switch with 4 or 8 way motion to steer your mouse around instead of being forced to use the touchscreen? Oh here’s one that’s way out there, how about having a call send/end button that’s not on the screen so I’m not hanging up halfway through a call because I bumped the phone against my cheek? This is what gets me annoyed with the technology base in this country. When we get a good idea, instead of us trying to make it work with people, we force people to work with the technology. Get it straight, humans were here first and technology should work for us. When it’s the other way around, we end up with Skynet as our only wireless carrier.

For legal purposes, I can only say that during the years 2003-2006, I did text while driving (more recent dates are too close to my own statute of limitations to divulge).

This would be a good place to text, make a call, or land a 747. I mean seriously, there's no curves for the next 939581 miles

How was I able to do that without rolling my vehicle up into a little ball? I used buttons! Every phone back then had them. Sure it took a while but my thumb knew to touch the top of the phone and slide down 2 buttons on the right, hit it twice and I’d have the letter “N”. Then wait a second and hit it 3 times and I’d have the letter “O”. Done. I just told someone no. Of course this was while living in the middle of central New Jersey where you need to pay more attention because people like to test your reaction time and insurance deductibles but walking out in front of you, cutting you off and of course, giving you the finger in the hopes of starting a fight.


The tactile feedback my phone gave me allowed my brain to focus on driving because I wasn’t screwing around with tapping on a screen. Sure I had some misspelled words but that exists today even with T9-predictive. Heck sometimes its even weirder since instead of a misspelled word, I get something totally out of context (I don’t think you left your undercarriage in my closet, but your umbrella is there). I wasn’t constantly looking down to see if my fingers were hovering over the proper virtual keys. Instead of my eyes having to look at the phone, my thumb (yes, only one digit was needed!) gave me all the information I needed while my eyes and ears took care of the driving. Modern smartphones with touchscreens require you to hold them like they’re pieces of the Lost Ark (also due to their shape which does not work well for single-handed operation). Like I’ve always said, if I can’t do it with one hand, I don’t need to be doing it.

It is abundantly clear that people are not giving up their phones. We are too addicted to being connected with other people to stop now. Many Americans spend a substantial portion of their year stuck in cars, either willingly or as a consequence of where they work. To ask them to now suddenly stop using their phones would be like asking truckers to give up CB radios (come to think of it, if talking was so dangerous, how come 18-wheelers weren’t going off the road 100 times a day back when the CB radio was king?).

Some guidelines to help people manage phones and driving other than “Just don’t do it” are sorely required. For starters, there is also no alternative to using common sense. If you’re getting too emotionally involved in a conversation, pull over. Tell the person you’re talking to that you’re driving so if you go silent for a few seconds, they’ll know why. If you have to text, do it at a stop light, or on an open road where there are few cars around you (Ever been in northwest Nevada? The nearest car is in Arizona).

"I did the right thing and pulled over, but I really hope HE'S not distracted."

Realize that you can’t respond as fast as you could if you were only doing one thing. Since a text can wait, put more of your eggs into the driving basket. The consequences for inattention are far worse.

Rather than feigning indignation and acting like people who text while driving are evil and self-centered (after all you’d nevvvvvvvvvver do that yourself, right?), we need to be collectively thinking of ways to make the technology work for us in our current situations. Voice activated texting could be a solution, as could better built dashboards that allow cellphone text data to be displayed on an LCD screen while stopped. But until then, if you can bear to, get yourself a phone with a good speaker function so you can talk hands-free (whatever good that does) and make sure it has really nice, friendly buttons. Let your thumb do the thinking and let your brain do the driving.

Other disclaimer: I do not encourage the act of engaging in texting, talking, tuning the radio, drinking water, responding to a passenger, looking at signs, or any other activity that could be construed as a driving distraction. Christopher Williams and all of his non-existent holdings will accept no responsiblity if you try to thumb text while driving on the LBJ at 6pm and wrap your car around the front end of a Kenworth. Use common sense, because the only cents you’re getting from me are the two that are in this article.

About Christopher Williams

Co-Founder of Whelan & Williams Industries Inc. Sole proprietor of Liftlazy. Photographer, musician, writer, pilot and all around good guy to know.
This entry was posted in Humor, Problem Solving, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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