March 20, 2005

Livable Public Space And … Cell Phones

Just why is it so annoying when someone whips out a cell phone in public and starts yammering -- even if they're not talking loud enough to drown out a jackhammer? This is one of the best explanations I've seen so far (from today's Sunday N.Y. Times magazine):

As the sociologist Erving Goffman observed in another context, there is something deeply disturbing about people who are ''out of contact'' in social situations because they are blatantly refusing to adhere to the norms of their immediate environment. Placing a cellphone call in public instantly transforms the strangers around you into unwilling listeners who must cede to your use of the public space, a decidedly undemocratic effect for so democratic a technology. Listeners don't always passively accept this situation: in recent years, people have been pepper-sprayed in movie theaters, ejected from concert halls and deliberately rammed with cars as a result of rude behavior on their cellphones.

I still remember a celljerk at an outdoor summer concert on the Esplanade in Boston -- not the Fourth of July, but still fairly crowded, even toward the back. The musicians were playing, and this idiot was yelling on and on into his phone. It was pretty easy to tell from his side of the conversation that this was not an emergency - no surgeon being called for a serious case, no family crises. Just yammering. I did finally tell the guy, You know, if you're yelling loud enough to be heard over the music, you're yelling loud enough to be disturbing the people around you who came to hear the music. Not surprisingly, he didn't care. But it's annoying even when not interrupting live entertainment.

It can also be deadly. If you missed it last month, check out What Call Is Worth A Life? Says automotive writer Dan Carney in this Washington Post opinion piece:

Exxon Mobil prohibits its employees from talking on the phone while driving company cars. It did so after conducting a study finding that the braking reaction time of phone drivers is three times longer than that of drunk drivers. ExxonMobil researchers also found that phone drivers are as likely to rear-end the car ahead as drunks, and that they are unable to maintain position in their lane. As with all other studies, Exxon Mobil found that it makes no difference whether the driver uses a hands-free phone.

I had a case of pedestrian road rage just last week, when another moron driving an enormously piggish SUV was both chatting on his cell phone and pulling out of a parking lot to turn right onto a busy Rte. 30. He was just looking left, never thinking to turn his eyes right because there might be someone walking on the sidewalk. (Which, by the way, is yet another reason why it's so important to design our streetscapes to encourage more pedestrians -- if there's rarely anyone out on foot, drivers are even less likely to think about checking for those of us who are.) Although in the case of this guy, I doubt whether even a school letting out would have been enough for him to think it was worth interrupting his conversation-while-turning-a-deadly-vehicle to make sure he wasn't about to kill someone.

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