July 22, 2009

The New York Times recently published an article, Driven to Distraction, which took an in-depth look at driving while under the influence – of cell phones, that is.  In this article, journalist Matt Richtel chronicles several anecdotal examples of the perils of driving while distracted by talking or texting on a cell phone, both hand held and hands-free styles.  A couple of days later, Richtel reported on a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which had been withheld until that day under direction from some in Congress.  On Wednesday, Maureen Dowd devoted her column to the subject, astutely pointing out: “The tech industry is our drug dealer, feeding the intense social and economic pressure to stay constantly in touch with employers, colleagues, friends and family.” Indeed, Ms. Dowd.  Indeed.

I tend to agree with Maureen on any given day and today was no exception.  People driving while carrying on a conversation on a cell phone is a pet peeve of mine; now that I live in New York I am hardly ever the driver.  But I am a pedestrian and that means I still have to contend with cars manned by distracted drivers.  More over, and certainly less lethal, when walking on the sidewalks I have to contend with the distracted walkers.  You know the one:  He’s got his headphones on so he can’t hear what’s going on around him – like the ambulance with blaring sirens; he’s typing a text message so he can’t see what’s going on around him – like the fact that he’s drifted into another “lane” of traffic and is about to bump into a woman walking in the opposite direction; he’s concentrating so hard on this text message – a message that apparently can’t wait a minute to compose and send – that he is oblivious to his surroundings – namely me walking beside him and nearly being trampled on when he takes a step in my direction, completely unaware of the fact that I’m there.  I can’t stand contending with this people and as the articles mention the ramifications of such distraction are even greater when you are using one of the most deadly weapons – an automobile.

I think we can all agree that distraction is bad and its results are even worse.  But the problem really lies in why we feel the need to multitask when already engaged in such a detailed and nuanced act – driving.  This is where Maureen is hitting the bullseye:  We Americans (and I’m sure plenty others around the globe) feel a completely unreasonable pressure to be available all the time. Why do we do this to ourselves?

For my part, I make a point to unplug.  I turn off my cell phone when I go to sleep.  I don’t check work email when I’m not working (and I rarely work from home or outside of normal 9-5 office hours.) Sometimes when I receive an email I let it sit in my inbox for a day or, gasp, two before responding.  I do read these emails with spotty regularity so nothing truly urgent goes unnoticed – but that’s just it! Within our culture of get-what-I-want-the-moment-I-want-it, we’ve forgotten what is truly urgent or what must be answered and attended to now and what can wait. 

 Here’s a quick way to tell if you have to respond right now: Are you dying? Is the person emailing you or calling you dying or in extreme physical harm? No? Well, then it can wait.  If no one’s life directly depends on you carrying on this conversation, don’t have the conversation while driving.  The consequence, as demonstrated in Richtel’s article, could be fatal. 

Yes, that’s dramatic but it’s also true. 

When I lived in DC, my laid-back hippie sensibility didn’t quite jibe with the DC culture of ‘needing everything to be finished yesterday’ and ‘my work is the most important thing – ever.’  If you give me a deadline, I’ll meet it.  Otherwise, don’t bug me for something.  And unless you’re a heart or brain surgeon nothing you’re doing is so terribly important that it can’t wait a day or an hour or even five minutes to allow me to go to the bathroom before you begin your diatribe regarding your latest proposal. (Yep, I’ve had some unpleasant work experience in DC.  Oddly enough, the pace slowed down when I moved to New York, a city known for its frenetic energy.)

I would venture to say that part of the reason we want to be available 24/7 is because we want to feel we are needed 24/7.  But the truth is, is anyone needed by anyone else 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Maybe a baby needs its parent(s) 24/7.  Maybe a senior citizen battling dementia needs an orderly all the time.  Everyone else, though, can take a breather.  I happen to have worked for a man who, while dining with his wife while on vacation in Jerusalem, answered a work email.  I assure you this was non-essential, even to our work, much less to the greater good of society.  True, he was sitting safely in a restaurant and not driving a car, but he was on vacation. With his wife. In Jerusalem.  Put the crack-berry down. 

Just because we can be in constant contact with everyone doesn’t mean we need to be.