How to ruin it for everybody …

i-9355af847e1393620a72189254adfbd1-cell_phone_epic_fail.jpgThis is almost National Lampoon Vacation Movie funny, except that it is not funny. As five of you, who have read my piece at the new blog A Vote for Science know, the ultimate outcome of events … and how society reacts to them … may depend on the level at which were are set up to respond, and by level, I mean level in the hierarchy of government. So one of the most threatening dangers to which our children are exposed … ice cream trucks … are ignored. Meanwhile, Killer Clothing, which is actually quite rare, is under lock down at the Federal Level.

I have not even learned to “textmessage” yet. Now, Federal Agencies are probing teenagers and their records to determine whether the most recent horrific transportation accident to occur on American Soil was caused by text messaging. Duck-assed punks in loud cars screaming out of gas stations without paying, the psycho-couple Tylenol killers, and an entire generation (it would seem) of small-electronics shoplifters have already ruined Western Civilization for All of Us. Now, we will endure one more incremental and highly engineered clamp down on our freedom, when cell phones will stop operating if moving above a certain speed in relation to the cell tower.

In case you’ve been traveling (say, across the country in a train) and missed this, here are the pertinent details from today’s Vancouver Sun:

LOS ANGELES — Investigators of a Los Angeles train wreck that killed 25 people are looking into reports that an engineer blamed for missing a stop signal light may have been distracted by text messaging moments before the crash, officials said on Monday.

Some 135 people were injured after a Metrolink commuter train plowed head-on into a Union Pacific freight Friday, in the deadliest U.S. rail tragedy in 15 years.

The National Transportation Safety Board is seeking to obtain cellphone records of a teenage train enthusiast and the commuter train engineer, said Kitty Higgins, a member of the board dispatched to the scene. …

So, should they ban cell phone use in moving vehicles? Or not? And, either way, would this accident been preventable in some other way (assuming for the moment that the cell phone theory is correct?)

We have to pay at the pump. We can’t actually open Tylenol bottles anymore without an engineering degree; most people require stitches after attempting to open the packaging on a pack of batteries. Have we not suffered enough?

Truth be told, not really. Too many morons roam this planet. Watch this guy, for instance, as he does it all wrong:


  1. #1 Dunc
    September 17, 2008

    So, should they ban cell phone use in moving vehicles?

    Yes. There is good evidence that driving whilst using a cell phone is about as risky as driving whilst under the influence of alcohol.

    Also… National Lampoon’s Vacation was funny? I must have blinked at that bit.

  2. #2 lylebot
    September 17, 2008

    There are a lot of idiots out there who have ruined lots of things for non-idiots. But there are also some things that are really dangerous that even non-idiots indulge in on occasion. Talking on a cell phone while driving may be one of those things. Even texting while driving may be one of those things—though it seems obviously a stupid and dangerous thing to do, how many of us can resist checking the message as soon as we hear the ring?

    I wouldn’t say that cell phones should be impossible to use in cars, but laws that impose fines on people caught using them seem OK to me.

    (Also, I don’t think I understand the “pay at the pump” example. That seems pretty convenient to me. What’s the alternative that’s more convenient and easier to abuse?)

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    September 17, 2008

    Lylebot: You have dated yourself! Prior to the invention of gas pumps that took credit cards, in many regions, you had to pay in advance. This is why pumps are capable of running up to a certain price then stopping … that was the MAIN technology for delivering gas. You would either leave a wad of money or a credit card with the clerk and fill up, then go BACK in and get your change or make the credit card transaction, or you would estimate that you had room for, say, five or ten dollars worth (back when that meant something), hand over your five or ten dollar bill and say “Five bucks on pump three, please”..

    This is also why they invented the method for communication between pump and clerk, so you could go “Oh wait, I meant pump four” or the clerk could go “OK, you’re ready to go on pump three” or whatever.

    That is how it was for many years for many of us.

  4. #4 Mimi
    September 17, 2008

    @ Greg- we still don’t have pay at the pumps here yet. I mean we have them, they just always say pay clerk inside. You can’t pump first at all. :oD

    And honestly, you can ban and make laws all you want… people are gonna do what they want. Sure drunk driving is illegal, but I can even begin to tell you how many people I know drive home drunk on a regular. Yes someone will get hurt eventually and occasionally someone ACTUALLY gets a ticket, but you aren’t really doing anything to alleviate the problem.

    I lost my cell a week ago and it is so liberating. The first day I felt naked and crazy and now I just don’t care. Leave me a message at home. I am free from being tracked down every second by someone! WOO HOO! If it is important, I will find out. I have Skype, email, my hubby’s phone. I am not responding to my texts in a Pavlovian manor anymore… it’s awesome!

  5. #5 Armchair Dissident
    September 17, 2008

    Bruce Schneier has covered this issue a number of times in the past, principally when discussing terrorism legislation. Generally speaking, we are just terrible at assessing risk. We’ll happily take our shoes off to board an airplanc we’ve driven at reckless speed to catch.

    Part of the problem, however, is also to do with the press. In the UK it is often quipped that the country is governed by the Daily Mail: it’s often seems that it’s not the people that are demanding X legislation in response to Y incident, but the Daily Mail’s editorial team.

  6. #6 CRM-114
    September 17, 2008

    Yesterday the NTSB did a recreation of the Chatsworth collision in detail, learning that Sanchez had the UP locomotive in view for 4 seconds before the impact but did not push the emergency stop button.

    He had been text-messaging trainspotters in the area, and had sent one a minute before the impact.

    The fact that he was sending or receiving text while driving the train means he deliberately put the lives of everyone at stake. He might as well have been surfing for porn.

    The fact that transpotters would send him messages or receive them means they were complicit in the distraction that got people killed.

  7. #7 Andrew
    September 17, 2008

    What would pressing the stop button have done?

  8. #8 Rob
    September 17, 2008

    I’m all for a national law that you can’t text or read a book or watch a DVD while driving. The shutting down texting devices when traveling over a certain speed is sure to cause problems. Aside from the engineering issues, you shouldn’t be texting while driving at ANY speed, whether 35, 85, or 5 mph. On the other hand, there are plenty of passengers who should feel free to send (and receive) texts, just not to the driver. The ability for the “navigator”/shot-gun passenger to find out conceivably vital information (like directions for someone who forgot to print directions) should not be taken away. My wife has saved my butt many times in this situation. But, like Mimi said, drunk driving is illegal everywhere, and it doesn’t mean people aren’t stupid enough to do it anyway. Grumble

  9. #9 BJN
    September 17, 2008

    Your inner Libertarian is getting in the way of looking at this rationally. Should there be penalties for drunk driving? Of course. Cell phone use while driving is a greater impairment than being over the legal limit for blood alcohol. Penalties for driving impaired certainly should apply. Texting while operating a vehicle is just plain insane. You can’t legislate intelligence, but you can punish people for stupid actions and that can influence people at the margins to act more responsibly. Laws don’t prevent behavior absolutely, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful in encouraging civility and responsibility.

  10. #10 Alcari
    September 17, 2008

    We’ve allready got a law here in the Netherlands that makes it illegal to use your cellphone in the car while driving (unless it’s hands-free), but it’s a crazy law.

    You’re still allowed to shave in your car, while smoking a cigarette and checking your hair in the mirror, but God forbid you hold a phone to your ear.

    What about a supremely simple and all-covering law that says “Keep your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes on the road!”?

  11. #11 Tom L
    September 17, 2008

    Alcari’s point about loopholes is well-taken. This July it became illegal in California to talk on a cell phone while driving, unless it is hands-free. However, that law did not cover texting, an activity that takes an order of magnitude more manual interaction and attention off the road, not to mention occurring on the exact same device with the exact same hands. Sheesh.

  12. #12 Ben Zvan
    September 17, 2008

    Trains would be one of the simplest things to automate. Cars have to stay on roads, but trains won’t wander from their tracks if you don’t steer them. Technology exists that could have sent the red-light info to the cab for either a human or a computer to stop the train.

    I don’t think that cellphones should be treated differently in a legal sense. Reckless driving is reckless driving.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 17, 2008

    Ben: Exactly what I was thinking. Why is a train relying on some guy pushing the red button?

  14. #14 Ben Zvan
    September 17, 2008
  15. #15 Science Avenger
    September 17, 2008

    BJN said: Should there be penalties for drunk driving? Of course. Cell phone use while driving is a greater impairment than being over the legal limit for blood alcohol. Penalties for driving impaired certainly should apply. Texting while operating a vehicle is just plain insane.

    Is there any data to support any of this? The claim that talking on a cell phone is worse than being drunk particularly caught my eye, but then that depends on what defines “drunk”. And that is the problem, isn’t it? Arbitrary limits placed on what everyone can do based on … what exactly?

    I don’t want to hear about how many accidents are “alcohol related” or “cell phone related”, as that is in many applications merely a self-fulfilling statistic, and the conclusion is illogical anyway. It’s similar to the Ozzie-causes-Satanism crap we all suffered through in the 80’s. The meaningful figure would be the % of drivers with BAC of X% having an accident vs a sober control group, and ditto with cell phones. Anyone ever see anything like that?

    Yeah, I’ve got a libertarian streak. It says that we don’t take away people’s freedoms without solid evidence, beyond horrifying anecdotes like the train story, to back the decision.

    And I’m with Greg and Ben – why isn’t this more automated for trains in the first place?

  16. #16 Ben Zvan
    September 17, 2008

    Science: What would be better is a graph showing driver %BAC on one axis and total number of accidents on the other.

  17. #17 Ktesibios
    September 17, 2008

    @Ben Zvan: That technology has been in use on the Lindenwold High Speed Line, which runs between Philadelphia and Camden County NJ, since the line opened in 1969.

    By modern standards it’s primitive- an analog six-aspect cab signal system. Basically, the train receives a signal which indicates how fast it’s permitted to go in that track block and the automatic control system on the train holds it at that speed. If the operator is running under manual control, which they are required to do at least once per week to maintain proficiency, exceeding the permitted speed or ignoring a red signal will cause the train to stop- and not start again until a supervisor has arrived and reset the system.

    These trains run under automatic control at speeds up to 60 mph and stop automatically at stations, usually within a couple of feet of their appointed spot. If you’re ever in Philly, take a ride over to Jersey on the Speedline- if you grab a seat at the front of the lead car you can watch the operator do nothing but push a button to close the doors and another button to start the train off to the next station.

    Subway and elevated systems have for decades used simple mechanical “trippers” to prevent trains from passing a red signal. This is not rocket science nor high technology; I’m astonished that Metrolink couldn’t be arsed to install such basic safety features.

  18. #18 valor
    September 17, 2008

    But… wouldn’t this prevent passengers from using their cellphones in the car? I know that when I’m in the car and someone else is driving, I answer their phone for them if it rings. and I certainly answer my own, if they’re driving. Certainly on trains, where one or two people are driving, and roughly 200 are milling about doing nothing, it makes no sense that NONE of them should be able to text or use their phones.
    Maybe Locomotive engineers should have to put their cells somewhere separate whilst driving, and certainly no one should drive and text/talk at the same time, but an actual technolock would be idiotic.

  19. #19 Dunc
    September 18, 2008

    Why is a train relying on some guy pushing the red button?

    Umm, because the the railways (sorry, railroads) have suffered nearly a century of chronic underinvestment and all the infrastructure and rolling stock is ancient?

  20. #20 Ben Zvan
    September 18, 2008

    Ktesibios: See, I told you it would be simple…

    Somebody told me this morning that “If the engineer was texting, then texing was the cause of the accident.” I had to disagree: What if the engineer was suicidal? In that case, automating the train would not have helped and the texting would have been irrelevant.

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    September 18, 2008

    Dunc: Isn’t this a train system that was just recently built and opened to much fanfare (like, ten years, not a century ago)?

    I’m starting to think the cell phone angle here is something else going on..