As the kids say nowadays, I’m “still processing” the responses to last week’s distracted-driving column. A surprising number of the commenters appear to have an opinion which roughly boils down to: There’s no statistical support for the idea that texting-and-driving is as bad as drunk driving — in fact, it appears to be nightmarishly more dangerous to do the latter than the former — but in my Secret King feelingsverse I still think that texting is just totally the worst thing ever and I won’t hear any argument to the contrary. It doesn’t matter that my statistics are coming straight from the NHTSA, which is currently trying to use “distracted driving” as something between a cause celebre and a reason to implement a draconian new raft of privacy-destroying regulations. And it doesn’t matter that those statistics show distracted driving to be more of a nuisance than a deadly epidemic. These commenters just know that cellphones are turning the American highway into a bloodbath, and they won’t accept any opinion to the contrary.
In other words, just like the narrator of Miike Snow’s “Cult Logic” — they believe it, even if it is not true.
I suspect that this stat-blindness is an unsung casualty of our increasing polarization and filter-bubbling. It’s becoming more and more difficult to encounter any sort of news or information which might in any meaningful way contradict one’s current worldview. This applies even to staunch conservatives who spend 200 days a year in the airport, like my brother; they’ve learned how to edit the omnipresent “Airport CNN” out of their consciousness. I’m not that far away from feeling that way myself. When I see Anderson Cooper’s vacant face on a flatscreen, it simply blurs to nothing in my vision. Cue the Westworld android response: “That doesn’t look like anything to me.”
We’ve raised at least one generation — probably two generations, to be forthright — of people whose response to any information they dislike is to hold their hands in front of their eyes and screech with directionless rage. But this particular blindness is no longer limited to the Mom’s-basement crowd, and it’s not just the so-called liberal snowflakes that do it. Try having a conversation with any tradcon, of any age, about the increasing barriers to economic mobility and they’ll tell you that it’s all in your head, that today’s 22-year-old college graduate has precisely the same kind of opportunities a GI Bill grad had in 1952 or 1979. You can give a centrist Baby Boomer the relevant stats on the matter, like the fact that acceptance rates at Columbia went from 65% in 1988 to 7% this year, but they won’t accept any statistic that doesn’t mesh with their cherished preconceptions.
At the same time, our national discourse has rushed headlong towards a total Sucks And Rocks binarity. Everything is either the best thing ever or total fucking bullshit. There’s no permitted gradient of meaning. Last night’s food truck was literally amazing. Donald Trump, the lifelong Democrat who was given diversity awards by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, is literally Hitler.
Take our inability to accept unpleasant facts. Add a binary emotion set, then stir vigorously with our modern default state of narcissism. Then the reader/commenter attitude towards distracted driving becomes obvious. Last week they were inconvenienced by someone who was paying more attention to her phone than she was to the motoring task at hand. This was a narcissistic injury, and it was literally Hitler. We no longer admit of any moral difference between wandering six inches into our lane on the freeway and driving at full speed into a bus filled with disabled children, so that makes distracted driving far worse than drunk driving, which hasn’t killed anyone in our family or neighborhood since, say, 2016.
Since distracted driving is literally Hitler, we don’t need to be bound by any sense of reason when thinking about the countermeasures. More than one of my readers expressed their support for some technological device which would deactivate all the phones in all moving vehicles, regardless of whether it’s the driver or passenger operating said phones. I guess we won’t let doctors travel anywhere, right? Or we’ll just have them call their secretaries from a land line every six hours or so, the way they did in 1965.
The NO PHONES crowd has also failed to consider that blocking all electronic-device usage in an automobile is exactly what the proponents of mandatory mass transit want. They want all of your trips to be traffic-jammed exercises in frustration so you’ll give up your car and get on the bus or train like everyone else. The goal is to elimination individual freedom of movement. If you want to know why, consult God Emperor Of Dune or your own worst paranoid fantasies; either would be correct.
I’m afraid that this reader intransigence has got me all fired up. I’m going to spend a significant percentage of my time in the year to come finding out exactly how dangerous “distracted driving” is. Maybe I’ll discover that the Boomer crowd is right, and that holding a phone while driving is just like driving drunk. Maybe I’ll find out that it’s a tear in the salted sea of highway fatality. More likely the truth will be somewhere in between. When I find it, I’ll do my best to believe.
For Hagerty, I wrote about a decade of bad cars.