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The Chatterbox

Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2007 by David E. Ross

This past week, I went on a business trip to install and test an upgrade to a major software component at a customer's location. The installation went quite smoothly, and the test results were all as expected. But the trip itself was not that enjoyable.

To start, I did not even get my second choice of motel, let alone my first choice. Then, after spending a full day installing and testing the software component, I was awakened at 1:30 am by a phone call that one of the customer's users could not start it. (This customer operates 24 hours a day, seven day a week. It turned out that the user had a non-standard computer environment, which was not modified when we used an automated tool to revise user environments for the revised software. I spent about two hours in the middle of the night — not counting driving time — to manually modify that user's computer environment and the environments of 12 other users who also had non-standard environments.) Then, while trying to return home, my flight was cancelled when one of the plane's two engines refused to start. I finally took off about two hours after I had originally expected to enter the front door of my home.

One of the worst parts of the trip began when I got on the shuttle van at Los Angeles International Airport for the 35 mile ride to my house. A few minutes later, a woman also boarded the van. She was already deeply involved in a conversation on her cell phone. Actually, conversation — which usually involves two or more individuals talking — might not be the correct term. Perhaps monologue might be better, since she talked 90% of the time and listened only 10% — all the way home. This woman jabbered on, describing her co-workers, business strategies, competitors, and customers, often in terms sufficiently unflatteringly that she really should not have said anything in front of an audience (the van driver, three other passengers, and myself). This was only a single call, started before she boarded the van and still going on and on as I exited the van about 45 minutes later.

I wonder what might have happened if I had a small tape recorder running in my pocket during the trip home from LAX. I heard her give her name to the van driver as she boarded. (He had to ask her twice — to check her against his reservation list — because she was concentrating on her conversation so intently that she did not hear him the first time.) I could have transcribed that woman's words and posted them here on this Web page with her name. I wonder how her company would react when learning what she said where others could hear her.

That poor woman! She might think she appears to be so important, relating a business trip over a cell phone. Actually, she is a peon, chained to that phone and ordered never to be out of communication. She is not allowed to give a trip report when she chooses but must give the report immediately without any chance of unwinding from her flight. In the meantime, she impressed no one on the airport van; she only annoyed us with her unending voice.

The Japanese have the right idea. To prevent such annoyances, they have legalized devices that jam cell phone signals so that chatterboxes cannot disturb others.


As I exited the van in front of my house, I turned to the chatterbox and said, "Excuse me [to get her attention]. Do you know how annoying it was listening to your voice all the way from the airport?"

She replied, "Well! You should have spoken up sooner."

Fat chance! How could anyone get a word in edgewise with her non-stop jabbering?

Did she not realize something was amiss when the driver kept turning his radio louder to drown her out (only to have her talk louder)? Had she no appreciation for how the rest of us perceived her? Of course not! With a phone to her ear, she became alone in the universe, self-centered and unaware of the presence of anyone else.

29 April 2001


Supermodel Niki Taylor in Hospital After Car Crash

News headline

Now in a hospital in critical condition with life-threatening internal injuries, Taylor was involved in a single-car accident. The driver admits he was distracted by his cell phone.

2 May 2001


This commentary started as a complaint about the annoyance of those who insist on carrying on phone conversations in public without regard for those around them who must listen to their chatter. Despite the brief note above about Niki Taylor, this was not supposed to be about the hazards of driving while using a cell phone. However, now even Congressional attention is focusing on the use of cell phones while driving.

The answer is not a prohibition against driving while talking on a cell phone. Such a law would be difficult to enforce and would not stop anyone from continuing this practice when the police are not in sight.

Instead, we need a law that presumes a driver talking on a cell phone is negligent if involved in an accident. Further, such a law should prevent such a negligent driver from collecting damages from anyone else involved in that accident and from collecting any reimbursement from his own insurance company. Of course, anyone else injured or suffering another loss because of the negligent driver could collect damages from his insurance.

This law — which would not require actual proof of negligent driving — would not be much different from the presumption that a person with more than 0.8% alcohol in his blood is driving drunk whether or not he is actually drunk. In this case, however, the primary penalty would be civil, not criminal. By blocking an injured driver using a cell phone from any recovery of damages, this law would create a stronger monetary incentive to drive carefully than any outright prohibition against using the phone. And that incentive would be active at all times, not merely when the police are nearby.

28 May 2001


cartoon: police officer saying that a distracted driver on a cell phone hit the pedestrian to whom he was talking

On 20 July 2001, Alexander Abaoag was driving his Mustang in Mission Viejo, California. He ran a red light and plowed into the rear of a pickup truck with such force that the rear axle of the truck tore loose. Abaoag was killed. On the passenger seat of his Mustang, police found a cell phone on which Abaoag had entered a phone number but had not yet pressed Send. [From an article in the 21 July 2001 Los Angeles Times]

*** Start Right Sidebar ***

You Make the Call

Re "Is It the Phone or the Conversation That Distracts?" Feb. 11: Forget all the studies. I have one question. Do you want the surgeon to talk to someone on a hands-free cell phone in the operating room while he's cutting you open? What's the difference between that and driving a few thousand pounds of steel while nattering on? And that surgeon has better hand-eye coordination than the average driver. Cell phone chatter in the car? Tethered or hands-free? Include me out.

Vivian Rosenberg
Santa Monica

"Letters to the Editor"
Los Angeles Times, 14 Feb 03

*** End Right Sidebar ***

The cell phone industry is wrong: The distraction from using a cell phone while driving is not the same as eating, applying makeup, tuning a radio, or talking to a passenger.

21 July 2001


Irked blogger does a number on cellphone user

Amy Alkon said she was in the Rose Cafe in Venice "trying to listen to the classical music and enjoy my breakfast" when a loud woman at the next table called an eye doctor on a cellphone to make an appointment. It was too much for Alkon, an advice columnist concerned with what she calls "the disintegration of public manners."

As the woman "shouted her information so anybody near her could (and, in fact, was forced to) hear it," Alkon wrote, "I took notes (rather conspicuously) and then posted the information, including her phone number, on my blog."

The cellphone user told the Wall Street Journal that she has since been receiving "weird and creepy" calls.

Columnist Steve Harvey
Los Angeles Times

If you don't want the whole world to know what you're saying, don't say it where the whole world can hear it. Private conversations should be conducted quietly and privately, not loudly in a public place.

21 January 2007


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