Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cell Mates

A friend and I were driving the other day when we came upon a car whose driver was doing a pretty fair imitation of the proverbial drunken sailor.

She sped up, slowed down, weaved in and out of lanes. And that was all in the span of one block.

This wasn't the aftermath of a three-martini lunch, however. Instead, she was busy talking on her cell phone while piloting an SUV the size of a dirigible.

It could have been worse. She could have been multi-tasking. She could have been applying lipstick, drinking coffee, changing CDs and reading the newspaper at the same time. It happens.

"I thought talking on a cell phone while driving was illegal," my friend remarked, hopefully.

Well, almost.

The California ban won't go into effect until July 1 of this year and, while well-intentioned, the bill was softened up by a bevy of body blows delivered by the telecommunications lobby. In fact, it took five years to pass.

The law will allow for cell phone use with hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets. Fines for breaking the new law will be $20 for the first offense and $50 every time after, but none of the tickets will impact the driver's insurance. Hardly the stuff of an episode of "Cops."

Aside from the fact that Bluetooth headsets make you look like a Cyborg from a sci-fi flick, there is evidence that suggests requiring drivers to use hands-free devices with their cell phones will do little to reduce crashes.

Research shows being a distracted driver is not necessarily about having both hands on the wheel, it's more about focusing attention on the road.

That should come as no surprise.

Even with both hands on the wheel, learning via cell phone that you've been dumped by your significant other, that someone unknown to you just ran up $5,000 on your credit card at a topless joint or discovering that fixing that leaky faucet will require replumbing your entire house is not going to do a lot to sharpen up your driving skills.

"There's a common misperception that hands-free phones are safer when the research clearly suggests that they're both equally risky," Arthur Goodwin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, told the Associated Press.

Among other reasons cited was the fact that the reaction time of cell phone users slows dramatically, increasing the risk of accidents and tying up traffic in general, and when young adults use cell phones while driving, they're as bad as sleepy septuagenarians.

"If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone," said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. "It's like instantly aging a large number of drivers."

Another Utah study showed that motorists who talk on hand-held or hands-free cellular phones are as impaired as drunken drivers.

"We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit" of 0.08 percent, which is the minimum level that defines illegal drunken driving in most U.S. states, said study co-author Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology.

"If legislators really want to address driver distraction, then they should consider outlawing cell phone use while driving."

Good idea. Except most Americans consider cell phones a God-given right, along with handguns and cheap mortgages.

One city tried a total ban to mostly bad reviews.

Lawrence, Kansas, proposed outlawing all cell phone use in vehicles several years ago.
Before they could hold a hearing, the telecommunications truth squad hit town like an invading army.

Jamie Hastings, director of government affairs for T-Mobile USA, said that her company opposed a complete ban, and that city officials should consider a ban on "McDonald's coffee and kids in the back seat, which can be just as distracting."

John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp., said it would be appropriate public policy if all distractions were included in the ordinance. "But since that's not the case, I imagine we would not be supportive of it."

One citizen likened prohibiting cell phone use in the car to a ban on listening to the radio. Another predicted economic doom for the community.

And city officials conceded enforcing such a ban would stretch police resources.
The effort failed.

In the meantime, a ban on hand-held cell phones in Washington, D.C., has resulted in 28,600 citations since 2004.

Which means people are mostly ignoring the law.

Worse, the state of Washington had to pass a law banning text messaging while driving. OMG, who in the world texts while driving? Apparently they do in the land of clouds and caffeine. It makes cell phone use seem downright safe.

Meanwhile, back in California, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he's sure the new law will save lives.

"There isn't a study in the world that says you're safer driving with a cell phone clutched to your ear than when you are driving with both hands on the wheel," he said.

Time will tell.

But next time, Joe, how about a bill banning cell phone use in restaurants.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Politics and Other Sex Games

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of politicians who behave like frat boys on a panty raid.

Not a week after Eliot Spitzer went from being the governor of New York to the punchline of a joke because of a weakness for high-priced hookers, his replacement, Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson, described as "a class act," admitted that he had an extramarital affair. Several, in fact.

Not to be outdone, his wife confided that she had, too.

This follows reports that former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned his position after he announced he was gay and confessed to adultery with a male lover, was involved in multiple sexual trysts with an aide and his wife Dina Matos, according to stories in the Newark Star Ledger. His wife denied the charges.

McGreevy, since his resignation, teaches ethics, law and leadership at Kean University in New Jersey. He has been accepted to General Theological Seminary, where he will pursue a Master of Divinity degree, required to become an Episcopal priest, according to published reports.

Which follows the arrest of U.S. Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, for lewd conduct in the men's bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last June. Craig pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct and has stated that he will not run for re-election.

All of which follows the granddaddy of all political sex scandals involving Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky getting up close and personal in the Oval Office. Not that it was much of a surprise. Watching Clinton was like following a trash truck on the freeway, throwing off bits of scrap and garbage while it rolls along.

And then there was Gary Hart and Wilbur Mills and Bob Packwood and Wayne Hays.

Look, I'm no prude.

We live in an era of child-molesting priests, morally compromised celebrities and chemical gobbling athletes. Any reasonable person would assume that these same lapses in personal conduct would taint elected officials as well.

We live amid changing sexual mores. Is a dalliance that big a deal anymore? If we are indeed becoming more liberal about these things, shouldn't there be fewer "scandals"?

We live in a country where shamelessness is the order of the day. Watch Dr. Phil if you don't believe it. Or consider this: a New York City securities trader recently filed suit because he claims he was injured when a stripper giving him a lap dance swiveled and smacked him in the face with the heel of her shoe. Poor guy probably worked at Bear Stearns as well.

We live at a time when public confidence in elected officials is at an all-time low. Having Pete the Politician caught with a blonde named Boom Boom exiting the Tickled Pink Motel doesn't help any.

On the other hand, it's nothing new.

Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemmings, a 17-year-old slave. Alexander Hamilton had a long-term extramarital affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds whose husband blackmailed him.

Besides, Americans love nothing more than a fall-from-grace story, the more rich and powerful and the farther the fall, the better. Which explains why the Spitzer story was the most talked-about event since 9/11.

With the explosion in cable TV and Internet media, there are more and more reporters than ever sniffing the air for scandal. And they're finding it.

Politicians have always misbehaved. We're just hearing about it more now.

That doesn't excuse behavior that is reckless and shameful. It sends a terrible message to our young. And there is little joy in watching the wreckage of a career and/or a family.

Unfortunately, it will never end.

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, according to no less an authority than Henry Kissinger.

Dr. Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist, quoted in the New York Times, put it this way:

"Politics is a risky business. You're at the whim of the electorate ... it inspires a risk-taking person to go into that line of work."

Added Dr. Judy Kuriansky, of Columbia University, talking about Eliot Spitzer: "You project wrong onto others that is symptomatic of your own behavior. It's called a defense mechanism. Basically, it's unconscious."

Moreover, she said, "when you get into a position of power, you think you're above the law."

None of which explains why these people never seem to consider the consequences.

This might help:

Every office seeker, every elected politician, should keep one scene in mind if he is tempted to stray from the straight and narrow.

Imagine what it must have been like for Eliot Spitzer to sit at the kitchen table, face to face with his wife and three teenage daughters, and tell them what he had done.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Oldies But Goodies

I consider myself the very model of a modern mature citizen.

I can text with the best of them, I own an I Pod and a flat screen LCD TV complete with Tivo system. I even know how to use it.

I embrace the future and look askance at those who dwell too much inthe past.

Except when it comes to music.

I used to tell my kids that there hadn't been a decent song written since they stopped making 45s. That was a slight exaggeration. But only slight.

Thus it was that I found myself on a recent Saturday night at aDoo-Wop concert at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, listening to the greatest hits of the 50s performed by many of the original artists.

It's been a long time since I've been to concert where those on stage were my age.

The setting was a bit surreal. Doo wop emerged from America's urban centers, a sort of modern-day barbershop quartet music but with a bit of grit and grime as befitting its origins.

It was raucous, it was sweet, it was sexual, it was innocent. It was born on the corners under a street light.

It was also small in the best since of the word, often done a capalla style.

Here it was being presented at a venue erected to house the Academy Awards, a towering edifice with a main floor and three balconies that looked like it could host the Rose Bowl game.

Like the Hollywood it was built to honor, it was massive in scale but somehow superficial.

On the other hand, the place was sold out, packed with people whose bedtimes were approaching as the curtain rose.

There was a lot of conversation in the audience about "the good old days" and "simpler times." Much as I loved the when and where of my childhood, there clearly were some dark moments in the 50s. Some personal recollections:

The smog in most areas of Los Angeles was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Contributing to the problem was the fact that most families had an incinerator in the backyard where they would burn their trash. That was my job as a kid, to take the residue from a family of five out back and torch it every morning. Talk about a carbon footprint.

We practiced dropping under our desks in the case of nuclear attack.This was the time of the Cold War and the threat of the Ruskies engaging us in atomic ping-pong was never far from our minds. (We were bombarded by "public service messages" that portrayed Soviet citizens as shifty-eyed Bolsheviks who hated God and dined on puppies).

Even at a young age, it struck me as a futile gesture to hide beneath a desk when a multiple-headed ICBM was falling out of the sky. But we dutifully hit the floor when the teacher would yell, "Drop down!"

We had an air raid siren on a utility pole just outside the backyard fence at our house, built to be heard for miles around. The authorities would test it monthly and on those days, we would freeze in our tracks for three minutes, paralyzed by the noise and wondering if this it.

In the event of an actual nuclear attack, however, we would have had a head start in dropping under a desk.

We lived in mortal fear of contracting polio.

We lived in mortal fear of the Draft.

I avoided one but not the other.

The Cold War begat McCarthyism and the arms race complete with nuclear testing, much of done down the road in Nevada.

Racial segregation was a fact of life. I didn’t meet an African-American until I was in high school. On the other hand, I am convinced that pop music, such as Doo Wop, did as much to boost integration in American society as sports did.

To give the 50s their due, it was a safer time and we had great personal freedom. As soon as I could ride a bike competently, I could go anywhere with my friends as long as I was back by dinnertime. And we roamed far and wide.

Soft drinks were a nickel, gas was 25 cents a gallon.

It was Friday night football and proms and drive-ins.

It was a lot like "American Graffiti." It was not at all like"Grease."

It was a time of discovery. Of friends and first cars and first loves.

It was the time of my youth.

Or as the Earls so succinctly put it in their classic song, "RememberThen,":

"Wop, wop, patta patta pop-pop, shoo-wop-dah bop bop..."