scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Yvonne Abraham

Confessions of a driver who can’t stop looking at her phone

Earlier attempts at a hands-free cell phone law have failed, but it looks as if it’s really going to happen this time.George Rizer for The Boston Globe

We’re still doing it.

Even though we know it is unbelievably stupid and that thousands each year are injured or killed because of it.

We’re still messing with our cellphones in our cars, as if we were invincible. We are idiots — though some of us are even thicker than others.

I like to kid myself that I’m a lower-grade ninny: I check my phone only when I’m stopped at traffic lights. I do this despite having written a column some years ago in which I outlined the dangers of even stationary cellphone use (light changes, horns honk, cell user, startled, lurches forward without looking). Back then, I attempted to humiliate myself out of my bad habit, confessing my sin publicly, begging police officers to pull me over and save me from myself.


It worked for a while. For a couple of years there, I was like a reformed smoker, vigilant and absolutist, never so much as glancing at my device in the car. But since then, my phone has gotten smarter, and I’ve gotten dumber. I’ve relapsed.

I’m not as bad as some people — the lunatics on the Lynnway or the pinheads on the Pike, who have their heads down, reading their little screens while their cars are moving at high speed. They take their eyes off the road for the length of a football field or more as they send texts or e-mails. They barely notice when I honk and give them my slightly-holier-than-thou finger-wag. It’s terrifying.

And so it is delightful to hear that there are efforts underway on Beacon Hill to toughen state laws against text-ing while driving, banning motorists from using phones or other devices unless they’re hands-free. Earlier attempts at a hands-free law have failed, but it looks as if it’s really going to happen this time.


Taking phones out of drivers’ hands will surely save some lives. It will definitely lead to more citations: It’s much easier for police to see if somebody is holding a phone than it is to discern whether they’re e-mailing or just dialing a number.

But even if the new law works perfectly, we’re still going to have a problem. Siri is good, but she’s not that good. For example, on the morning I wrote this, I had her send a text message and call two friends. I had to look at the phone to make sure she heard me right on the text message, and I had to pick up the phone and swipe a couple times to hang up the second call. Not good.

Even if I had one of those nice cars with those Bluetooth voice-activation contraptions, I’d still have issues. Just being on a cellphone — even hands free — is dangerously distracting when you’re behind the wheel. A Carnegie Mellon study found that listening to somebody on a cellphone reduces activity in the parts of the brain we need for driving by 37 percent, leading to the kinds of errors people make under the influence of alcohol.

And there’s no guarantee stricter laws will make us behave any better. According to the Registry of Motor vehicles, police issued 5,274 citations for texting and other improper device use last year, and we appear almost entirely unaffected. Maybe tripling or quadrupling that number will have a chilling effect, but I wouldn’t bet on it.


That is because, when it comes to cellphones, the law is up against something mighty powerful: addiction. We need to keep checking our phones the way a compulsive gambler needs to keep playing the slots. We’re hooked on the anticipation of a connection, however fleeting. And that compulsion may be even stronger in a car, where the rational self that might make a smarter decision is busy with the whole driving thing.

We need drastic measures: cars that disable cell signals when they’re running, for example. We need a solution that doesn’t just deter us from making bad choices but takes those choices out of our hands entirely.

Because time after tragic time, we’ve proven we can’t be trusted.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.