25 July 2011

There are some lessons I don’t want to learn the hard way, and the danger of operating a mobile phone while driving is one. That’s the truth I remind myself of every time I’m tempted to send a text message or check my email when I’m in the driver’s seat.

Now, if you’re a long-time reader of Geek & Mild, you’re probably thinking that this subject is a bit off-topic for me. I promise I’ll get back to the normal stuff, like my take on Apple’s latest products or how I approach a design problem, after I get this off my chest.

We’re all agreed, so let’s agree

This isn’t a controversial subject. There are no activist groups arguing how it’s safe to operate a mobile phone while driving. Even if we haven’t seen the terrible and graphic images from campaigns against texting-while-driving, most of us are already convinced of its dangers. We’ve at least heard the stats, stories or laws surrounding the issue.

Further, what separates this issue from, say, cigarette smoking – which also has proven statistics to back up claims of its dangers – is that there are no companies lobbying for the removal of government restrictions. I guess even big business knows enough to stay away from it.

The reality is, even though we all agree it’s dangerous, very few of us make a conscious effort to stop doing it.

I am chief

I’m not exempt, so please don’t think I’m writing this from a soap box. Actually, it’s probably more like a courtroom Defense chair. I’m sorry to admit it, but the irony here is that I might be one of the worst offenders – I’m a geek and have an iPhone, after all. I’m writing this more for me than anyone else.

I wish I could tell you my motivations to get serious about this have been sheer moral righteousness, civil sense of duty, or from higher-level reasoning. Nope. Last year the Washington State legislature passed a law prohibiting texting while driving … I started out wanting to avoid the $124 penalty.

It’s something I’m now serious about, though; actively working on. Because like I said, I don’t want to learn the hard way. I don’t want you to either. That’s why I’m writing this: to share both my conviction, and my struggle, in hopes that you’ll join me in a grassroots crusade against distracted driving. If geeks like you and me start taking this seriously, maybe more will follow our example.

The battlefront

One of the negative side affects of living in this instant-access culture is the sense of obligation we have to reply to someone who sends an email or text – or tweet or Facebook message, etc. – right now. For me, this is much more a problem than other types of mobile phone uses, such as browsing the internet or playing music. So-and-so texts a simple question so I feel the need to reply immediately. It’s even worse if so-and-so is a family member or close friend.

Here’s the thing: the obligation is often self-imposed. I feel the need to reply immediately, not them. In my opinion, this is the battlefront of the issue. This is where the rubber meets the road (no pun intended), because I, at this moment, am the one carrying all the cards. Either I properly prioritize my actions and exercise self-discipline, or I make excuses and take unnecessary risks.

In plain terms, no one is forcing me to pick up my iPhone while I’m driving. The problem is, like drinking and driving, it’s an activity that must be self-disciplined.

“I love you too much to text you right now”

For me, the stats and stories helped, but it wasn’t until I thought about it in real, raw, personal terms that it clicked. I imagined myself as a character in one of the stories – a number in a terrifying statistic.

That’s when I told my wife I love her too much to reply to a text or email if I’m driving. And you know what? She actually understood. Here’s the thing, like I mentioned previously, no one is going to argue that it would be safe for me to reply while I’m driving.

Trust me: an immediate response is not required.

Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today

Another key for me has been to realize I don’t have to always be driving when in my car. A trick I’ve been using is to text my wife right after I start my engine, but before actually pulling out. That way she knows I’ll be on the road for the next few minutes. I do this as a part of my normal “pre-flight” check. (E.g. seatbelt, mirrors, gauges, etc.) It’s a small thing, but I’ve noticed the urge to check my phone or reply to incoming texts is lessoned when I do it.

In addition, I’ve also resolved to pull over somewhere if and when I feel I actually must reply to a text message or call. It’s inconvenient, yes, but far less inconvenient than spending a week in ICU.

Enjoy the ride

One thing I realized in regards to the actual act of driving since owning a mobile phone: I haven’t been enjoying it like I used to. That’s sort of a bummer. Especially since I used to really love driving.

So, in order to kick the habit of using my phone while driving, I’ve begun to look forward to the drive itself again. I don’t drive a fancy car or anything, nor do I have a beautiful (or even long) commute. However, I can still find a sense of innocent joy at the idea of moving at high velocities, being in control of a powerful mechanical device, and seeing varied and weathered scenery breeze past as I drive.

Maybe I’m being a bit nostalgic – or even narcissistic – but there’s no denying that, for me, enjoying driving helps me stay alert and focused.

Cheating (death)

As I said, I’m chief offender. And the reality is, sometimes it’s just unavoidable and I have to use my phone when driving. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I enlisted the help of my company, Sky Balloon, to make an app to assist. Canned is a text message template app designed to help you get in and out in as few taps as possible. I have templates for:

Another app I’ve relied on for speedy, frictionless communication is Dialvetica, which helps me contact (call, text or email) a person in my address book with only a few taps.

There also another gem of an app I use while driving: Dragon Dictation by Nuance. It wasn’t until I used this app on the road that I realized how incredibly useful it is. I just launch, tap, and dictate. Dragon Dictation is accurate and quick, and allows me to draft full text message replies only a few taps.

Risk assessment

The bottom line, though, is it’s not worth it. The conveniences designed to enrich our lives are pointless if, while using them, we endanger our lives. The risks are too great. We just have to be motivated enough to exercise self-discipline. For me, it hasn’t worked to just make a decision once, I literally have to remind myself every time I drive: it’s not worth it.

So if you don’t hear back from me, it’s likely because I’m on the road – and I love you.