Dana Milbank Live: Why a cellphone ban would be a distraction

Dec 16, 2011

Dana Milbank chatted about his latest columns and more.

Dana Milbank Live is your weekly opportunity for a give and take with Dana centering on the latest political news in Washington and his recent columns.

For today's chat, read Milbank's column, Cellphone ban would be a distraction and talk to him about why he calls NTSB's proposed ban of electronic devices while driving "an absurd overreaction to an unrelated problem."

Good afternoon!

I am conducting this chat on the outer loop of the Beltway.  I am just passing Exit 29.   Verizon Air Card, don't fail me now.

Let's chat.

Clearly Dana your column was tongue-in-cheek. I have been rear-ended 4, count 'em, 4 times in two years, all while stopped, and all by texting or talking-on-a-cell-phone drivers. Imagine if I were on a motorcycle. No one needs to be holding a device in their hands other than their steering wheel while driving, and as soon as the laws and the enforcement catch up to this fact, that driving is the ONLY priority while driving, then a balance of sanity can again be achieved and only drunks and stupid aggressive "me-first" drivers will be causing the accidents again. Remember the old saying that Driving is a Privilege, not a RIght? Our Constitution says that Life is a right, therefore either drive properly or get off the road because otherwise you are taking away others' rights to life.

I am pleased that you feel comfortable enough to discuss your rear-ending experiences in this chat forum.

I do not believe people should be rear-ending you or anybody else on public roadways.   



Maybe the Chatsters can form the world's largest traffic jam by all getting in their cars and driving toward K Street while doing the Dana Milbank Live chat.

I like this idea. But can we do it on the Beltway?  I am approaching the Mormon temple now.   A washingtonpost.com automotive flash mob!

So, I'm not allowed to use my phone as a hands free GPS device or even pull up a map at a red light to find out how to "recalculate" my route without shooting an illegal U turn? I can say with confidence I drove far more dangerously back in the day when I had to squint at a paper map while randomly hitting my brakes to check street signs or even occasionally wandering down the wrong way on one way streets.

I had this atlast that was about 2-feet by 3-feet, which I kept on the steering wheel.  It covered most of the windshield, too.

So.....your argument is that you should be allowed to use whatever device you like while driving a ton of machinery at 50 mph because.....you like it. And everyone else does it. And there are other distractions anyway. Tell me, what number of deaths due to people talking and texting is acceptable to you? Which of your phone calls is worth a person's life?

Only phone calls with editors are worth a person's life.

Now let's not mischaracterize my argument, please.  I do not think people should be texting while driving.  But I do not think a case has been made that hands-free cell phone conversations are a significant safety risk, or any more risky than transporting a child who is making noise.    If you go out and ban reasonable behaviors along with the truly dangerous ones, you're not going to get compliance.

Surely you aren't driving while typing for this chat? Which reminds me, what is your position on texting while driving?

I am in a vehicle that is moving, but I am in the passenger seat.   We just got off at Connecticut Avenue and are making a right on Jones Bridge.   I am very opposed to texting while driving and I know it is wrong even when I am doing it.   Actually I think a case can be made that texting is wrong under any circumstance.

Who is driving?

A chimpanzee.

Perhaps there should be more spots along the sides of roads where people can safely pull over in order to make cell-phone calls or send text messages.

Or conduct webchats.  At NIH now.

And suddenly, the traffic parts on the Beltway as drivers scramble to try to avoid your vehicle.

My chimpanzee has an excellent driving record.  And she can't text because she has fur on her thumbs.

The Great One...relate your favorite Hitch tale for us Dana.

First met him when he came to a debate at my college, back in the last millennium.   I didn't know him very well, but I couldn't but admire his spunk.

Thanks to your judicious intervention, La Palin and The Hermanator are no more. Will you allow the voters to smite the rest of the unworthy Republican pack, or will you fix your baleful gaze on yet another one of the herd?

The biggest test is now underway.  As Jon Stewart has pointed out, I long ago said that Newt could not recover. Night after night on cable TV I say it is impossible that Republicans will be foolish enough to make him the nominee.  And yet -- it is possible.  But I think they are beginning to come to their senses, which is why Ron Paul is now ascendent.

My husband gives me the "passengers and kids are just as distracting" argument all the time too. I'll agree to an extent--anecdotally I find that cellphone *conversations* are analogous to convos with other people in the car. They're nowhere near as distracting as texting, though. Your hands are off the wheel, eyes are off the road, etc etc. So if you are going to use the "other things are distracting" argument then find ones that can correllate with the distraction level of texting while driving--like shaving your legs or sketching the scenery. I know, I know, that's over the top. But here's the thing--if the cellphone is near you for talking purposes, it is reeeeeeeally hard to resist the temptation to send a quick text as well. I experience this all the time and I am pretty militant (can't you tell?) about not texting and driving. So I think you do have to draw the line at all cellphone use.

That's actually a good slippery slope argument.  If my phone is sitting there and it buzzes with a text, and it's a question that needs just a one word answer. . . well, I can see your point.


he totally focused on the problem of texting while driving, and wouldn't touch the part about banning talking with a hands-free device. Wonder what pressure he puts on the NTSB...

Yes, I went to one of his distracted driving events and I found it very powerful.  Didn't text the whole way home.  I think he is a sensible and shrewd man and will realize it's much better to go after the bigger problem of texting than risk a backlash by trying to outlaw everything.

On a different note, do you feel honored that you made Salon.com's Top 30 Hacks list?

I do now!  How about a link, please? 

The reason that hands-free cell phone conversations ARE a significant safety risk is that, unlike a conversation with a passenger in the car, the person on the other end of the phone cannot tell when the driver needs to stop talking because of the need to pay close attention to driving, so keeps talking and expecting an immediate reply, regardless of how distracted the driver may be. On the other hand, a conversing passenger in the same car CAN tell, and accommodate the driver accordingly.

Yes, but as one of the studies pointed out, an annoying passenger who does a lot of back-seat driving can be very dangerous as well.  So you definitely need to ban back seat drivers as well, which is a ban I think we can all support. 

Auto death rates have plummeted in the last 10 years, something like 30%. Simulatneously, cell phone use by drivers has skyrocketed. I think everyone can agree that texting is just too much, but might the call to ban calls outright be missing the larger point? There might be benefits to talking while driving that the various "distracted driver" studies miss. Maybe fewer miles are driven due to real-time decisions enabled by cell phones. Or maybe cell phones enable people to make calls about being late to appointments and whatnot, thereby reducing their need to speed?

Not for the first time, the readers have demonstrated higher order thinking than the writer.

Is that one of the chimpanzees that NIH won't be experimenting on anymore?

I have to return her at the end of the chat.

More importantly, do I still have a $230 transit subsidy to ride the system in the first place?

You can use your cell phone on metro, but if it is like mine it will only work at stations and then not very well.

If I'm texting while driving, how can I avoid hitting the livestock that wander on the road?

You in Iowa need to ban livestock from texting so that they do not wander heedlessly into public thoroughfares.

I have an idea for a GOP presidential aspirant: Why not go all in on the no tax pledge, and run on a platform that reduces everybody's tax burden to 0%! Think of all the extra money consumers will have to pump up the economy! No one likes payng taxes, anyway. Wouldn't that be a bold stroke?!

Also this would make the whole texting ban moot, because we wouldn't have the NTSB. Or police. Or roads.  Too bad last night was the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.

Having to Tweet is obviously an emergency. No need to worry about that, at any rate. But, seriously, a ban on cellphone use while driving would be a good idea. It would give the police in Arizona something to do when they aren't stopping people for being Hispanic while breathing.

Actually this could dramatically increase immigration enforcement, with large numbers of people deported for using Bluetooth.

Sorry but I just have this mental image on St. Peter holding up a book and asking "Care to explain this?"

Hitch would offer him a glass of Scotch and all would be forgiven.

Dana, I love your writing but I just lost a lot of respect for you. I'm so disappointed that you would mock the NTSB's recommendation. It's a no-brainer. Talking and texting while driving are both very dangerous. There should be education AND laws. The law helps with the education. If it's bad enough to ban, then that shows that it's bad. There are lots of laws that are hard to enforce, but we have them anyway. It's how society shows what matters. Please reconsider your position. And no more devices while you drive!

I will reconsider.  But should we also reconsider drunk-driving statutes so that even blowing a 0.01 is considered in violation?   

It's about time - you've some explaining to do... ;)

Um, last week I had laser eye surgery.  And the week before that it was a midlife crisis.  Next week I'm going up to the inlaws for Christmas so I think we're chatting Thursday. 

We already banned teenagers from texting while driving, but the livestock lobby (more pigs than people) is way too powerful here.

The hogs are very selfish.

Get the Death Ray app for your iPhone. I already use it at night to evade wandering deer.

News you can use, brought to you by live online.

I never use by iPhone flatulence app (iToot) while driving, by the way.

If the driver needs to stop conversations in the car in order to concentrate fully, it's easy enough just to tell back-seat drivers to shut up.

Maybe in your family.

Forget while driving, I would support their ban on the Metro! There is nothing as dispiriting as, after a long days toil, being forced to listening to the painfully stupid conversations that one person subjects on an entirely tired and quiet Metro car full of people.

I could get into that ban, too.  People would have to go back to reading newspapers.

Who wins the Iowa caucus?

The race is too close to Paul.  I mean call.

Are you saying you oppose the Designated Driver idea?

No, although this raises the possibility that I had not considered.  I could hire myself out as a Designated Texter.  I could sit in the passenger seat and send out text messages from my client's phone while he/she drives the car. 

Can we talk about your Huntsman love now and his encouraging numbers in NH? Is he campaigning anywhere else, or happy to do well just in NH?

I sooooo want to believe that is real.   If it were to happen John Weaver should be given the Nobel Peace Prize.  

LINK:  You came in 24th....just after Howard Kurtz.


What I have is the mental image of Hitch quoting Voltaire: "I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire," Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in October 2010, "who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies."

I remember when--in between tracks from "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"--I heard my one-year-old eating something. I hadn't given him food, and I looked back and saw him chowing on a stick. That was plenty distracting. The NTSB really ought to ban sticks as well.

Or kids.

Compliment or insult?

Well, this town is divided into wonks and hacks, and I've never had any doubt about where I stood. 

Not for the first time, the readers have demonstrated higher levels of sophistry.

I resent that.  My readers have never been better at sophistry than me, and they've never been more sophomoric.

Okay, it is time for me to put away my laptop -- and my phone -- and return the chimpanzee to NIH.   Thanks for chatting, and, until next time, remember: No rear-ending.

In This Chat
Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank reviews the political theater of the nation's capital in his editorial-page column. His most recent book is "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America;" his other books are "Homo Politicus" (Doubleday, 2008) and "Smashmouth" (Basic Books, 2001). Milbank joined The Post as a political reporter in 2000 and wrote the "Washington Sketch" column for nearly six years. He lives in Washington with his wife and daughter. • Dana Milbank Bio & Archive
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