Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Yes, Virginia, People Really Are That Stupid

Despite my better judgement, I can't help but be just slightly nervous at the prospect of stepping on a plane in August. No matter how aware I am of how safe flying is, there will be a small part of my brain that recognizes there is a chance, however miniscule, that I'll never step off again; whether that chance is greater or lesser than, say, Earth being sterilized by a gamma-ray burst between now and then is open for debate.

Intellectually, though, I know there's no real danger. Realistically, I know that I'm in far more danger crossing the street at an intersection with the lights in my favor, and if the latest news is any indication, the driver that hit me would probably be texting.

The Toronto Star reported today on the findings of a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study that found truckers driving while text-messaging were twenty-three times more likely to get into an accident than truckers with their full attention on the road. The study found that when the truckers took their eyes off the road to read a message, they did so for "nearly five seconds" - and when you're on the lanes at a hundred per, that's practically forever.

I've always heard it said that the reason teenagers are so liable to get into accidents is because of a sense of "youthful invincibility," that nothing bad could possibly happen to them because, you know, they're them and not someone else. The general implication, never said outright, was that that these attitudes went away with adulthood. At least, that's the implication I derived from it while growing up, but now, I can see that's just wishful thinking. I know that not only do I still feel the same way now as I did when I was 18, I'll probably still feel the same way I did when I was 18 - mentally, at least - when I'm 80.

It's not as if this situation was engineered by the study; plenty of people, far too many, do this sort of thing of their own accord. Talking on a cell phone while driving is so common now as to be wholly unremarkable. While bicycling along Queens Quay a few weeks ago, I was caught behind another cyclist wearing earbuds and no helmet, who was so oblivious she almost cut off a right-turning car. Texting while driving is only the latest manifestation of the go-go-go, always-on 24/7 culture that makes me refuse to get a cell phone in the first place, evidence of the degree to which we prize convenience and efficiency over as pedestrian a matter as safety.

If you'd asked me about this a few years ago, I'd have hoped that "texting while driving" would fall into the same domain of ridiculousness as "shaving while driving" or "applying lipstick while driving." Unfortunately, though, texting seems to be gaining more and more cultural acceptance by the day, even if I still have difficulty figuring out why everyone is so crazy for it - so you can send messages without having to talk. So what?

It's news like this that makes me wonder if low-level solipsism is a more common psychological condition than we think.

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