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Rumble Seat

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Recently, while talking on a cell phone in a car, I performed one of the more spectacularly stupid traffic maneuvers of my, or anyone's, life.

This was less a lapse of judgment than a Grand Canyon of judgment, a gulf of judgment, an unknown country of judgment from which no traveler deserves to return.

Enthralled, nay, rapt, in a conversation with my veterinarian--whose account of hip displacement in Great Pyrenees could be made into a Broadway musical--I pulled down a one-way street in Durham. Flummoxed, I attempted a three-point turn in front of patiently waiting traffic, a turn that multiplied into a 30-point turn due to the fact I was driving a Ford F-250 Superduty truck, which is the length of a Saturn V booster rocket.

I forced a crowd of drivers to wait through a cycle of lights--being Southern, they were far too polite to actually flip me off, though I could feel their stares like cold eels down my shirt. Then it dawned on me; in all the jockeying, I had neglected to put the phone down. I'm surprised they didn't drag me from my car Rodney-King style.

Such is the mesmerism of telecommunications. I'll wager nearly everyone owns a voodoo doll made in the image of a phone-dazed driver who has run him off the road. In the Triangle, particularly, cell-phone usage is sickly compulsive. OK, I can see some people have an excuse. Russell Capps (he's talking to God), real estate agents, doctors, emergency phone-sex staff--these people need to be connected. For the rest of us, the bumper sticker should apply: Hang up and drive. Oh, and by the way, mean people suck.

In Ohio, the township of Brooklyn recently banned the use of hand-held cell phones in a moving car. Some state legislatures are considering similar laws, and in Europe, it is widely illegal to use a cell phone while driving a car. This on a continent where even dead people have cell phones.

And yet, more is to be done. Many high-line vehicles use hands-free technology for their cell phones. At first blush, this seems an answer to the one-too-few-hands problem; however, talking on the phone is inherently distracting. Indeed, that is precisely why people yammer endlessly on the phone in midday traffic. They are bored. They want to be distracted. A rousing fight with their inconsiderate spouse is better than another half-hour of Rush or a yet another Whitesnake retrospective.

Hands-free also leads to Central Park syndrome, wherein people see you talking to yourself in your car and fairly presume you are a babbling schizophrenic. Or Russell Capps.

The road politely insists on your attention. If you refuse to grant it some, it may gently nudge you to attention with a tree. One of my more firmly held predictions these days has to do with the likelihood that someone will sue his car manufacturer because of an accident resulting from an on-board navigation system. These units, which use an LCD screen (it looks frighteningly like another mind-sapping device--a television), map out destinations and directions, points of interest, and restaurants, a smorgasbord of information that is hard to resist nibbling at.

Someone is going to get killed while a driver is paging through the nav system for a good dry cleaner.

For those who fret that with telephony the world has crowded into our back seats, I have bad news. Delphi Automotive Systems will launch, on the 2002 Cadillac Evoq roadster, a "multimedia information and entertainment system" that will dump cyberspace right into your laps.

Called Communiport, the system will feature wireless communications with hands-free capability; an audiophile's dream Bose sound system; turn-by-turn navigation; and a Microsoft CE-based computer system with voice-command recognition and text-into-voice software. The Communiport will have an infrared data interface that will connect the car's wireless and computer to a PDA or a laptop. E-mail, stock transactions, memos, schedules, spreadsheets, phone lists, and more. Virtually every horrible thing that you try to escape at the office can be piped right into your car.

And you--poor, deluded pilgrim of the work ethic--will probably want it, because these technologies will make you more productive. Won't that be nice? It amazes me that the sole sanctuary from the noise and the relentless clatter of other people's tongues--a car--can be so breezily traded away. For myself, I absolutely adore being out of pocket.

The other issue, obviously, is safety. I am not typically a liberal hand-wringer on these matters, but clearly there has to be a regulatory limit to the degree of connectedness allowable in cars. While it is true that in the '30s there was an effort to ban car radios on the same grounds of inattention, I think fathoming the digital stock ticker on CNN/fn.com while trying to merge on the freeway is something different.

To compound the problem, American drivers are, in the words of various government studies on the matter, morons, rolling roadblocks of idiocy who wouldn't know a passing lane from a passed gallstone. This week, I was merging onto Raleigh's Glenwood Avenue from Wade Avenue, in a short chute of a merging lane that drivers on Glenwood are obliged to keep clear. I wisely looked twice as I yielded, because booking down the road in a Mazda 323 was a young woman, moving at about 60 mph, bearing down on merging traffic like a smart bomb on a Serbian bridge. Yeah, OK, God, I'll spot you that one.

And, of course, she had her head in the phone.

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