The Good Samaritan’s Smartphone and the Law of Love

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Staff writer, desiringGod.org

The statistics are as clear as a red stoplight on a dark night.

Talking on the phone while driving makes you 4-times more likely to get into an accident. Texting while driving makes you 23-times more likely to get into an accident.

Driving is inherently visual; talking and listening is not. We can talk to others and drive with little impairment. But because texting is visual, “doing two visual tasks at once, like texting and driving, drastically impairs how you perform each task” (source).

Which is why the reaction time of texting-distracted drivers is slowed by 35% compared with non-distracted drivers, an impairment greater than that of alcohol and marijuana intoxication combined (source).

To make this more concrete, in the average time it takes us to send a text (4.6 seconds), at 55 MPH, we drive blindly the length of a football field. Then we unknowingly drive through a post-text daze called “inattention blindness,” which means it takes several more seconds of looking out the windshield before our minds finally refocus on the road.

Texting and driving is so stupid and dangerous, 46 states have banned it.

So you would think these facts would deter people from making this drastically reckless decision.

It doesn’t.

Why the Laws Don’t Work

The legal bans on texting and driving seem to have little effect in preventing this dangerous habit. In fact, a University of Michigan study concluded that anti texting-and-driving laws may actually be causing a rise in the most serious texting-and-driving accidents.

So why don’t the laws work? And why are the deadliest accidents on the rise?

First, consumers are fed a constant diet of mixed messages. A Deadly Wandering is a recent book written by journalist Matt Richtel, and it’s a riveting examination of the dangers of texting-and-driving. Richtel follows a 2006 case of a college student whose texting-and-driving led to a collision that killed two in an oncoming car. Richtel retells the accident, follows the consequent trial, and asks all the relevant questions about our legal obligations when it comes to maintaining our undivided concentration in a digital world.

In the end, in part, Richtel points the finger of blame for distracted driving at telecommunications marketers, car manufacturers, and lacking government regulations. We get mixed messages, he says. Our mobile phone providers say, “Don’t text-and-drive,” and then praise 24/7 digital multitasking. Even a little child can figure out that multitasking with a phone is better than doing only one thing (like driving a vehicle?).

Our car manufacturers say, “Don’t text and drive,” and then install wifi in our cars. And our government does little to stop these conflicting messages, he concludes.

Road safety researchers say there may be a simpler reason why the laws don’t work. Unlike holding a phone to the side of your face to make a call in plain sight (also dangerous and illegal in many states), the states that crack down the hardest make the practice more clandestine. Instead of sending texts from above the steering wheel, we send texts with one thumb under the window-level view of onlookers. The harder the laws clamp down on texting, the lower the phone goes out of sight. The lower the phone, the further our attention is drawn off the road, requiring more time to read and send texts, and more time to reorient out attention to the road. Thus, the more aggressive we get at stopping texting and driving, the more concealed (and dangerous) texting becomes, and more serious accidents result.

So if laws, fines, and police enforcement cannot stop texting and driving, the solution must be personal, and we’ve seen a rise in graphic ad campaigns to pick up on the empathy theme to show just how fast careless drivers who are texting can cause life-altering damage to others.

The minds behind these graphic ads know texting and driving is largely the result of ignoring the people outside your car.

Matthew Crawford, in his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, explains what traffic engineers are beginning to learn: Driver safety is improved when we know others are watching us drive, from the outside. The closer proximity we must drive to a marked bike lane, or a school crossing, or an office building, the more aware we are that others are watching us drive and we take greater care. But when these cues disappear, we tend to hit the gas, forget about the people around us, and turn inward into our own self-centered world.

“Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars,” Crawford writes. “They can foster circumspection — literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn — or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the later case, we tend not to encounter others unless we literally collide with them” (81).

Crawford is forecasting hands-free automated cars, something Christians will have to think about later. But for now, in a human-piloted car, the act of texting and driving is me-centered neglect of others.

A Christian Perspective

So what do Christians have to offer? How can we stop what the laws cannot?

As Jesus so helpfully boiled down for us, God has called us to do two things every moment of our day: love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40).

This two-fold love is powerful when laws prove powerless.

First, how we use our phones must be directed by our love for God, and by our desire to obey him. We must be resolved to quit living as technological agnostics. To disobey good traffic laws intended to promote the good of society is not only worthy of state penalties, it is an act of rebellion against God himself (Romans 13:1–7).

Second, driving a vehicle is always dangerous and puts others in danger. We command a 3,000-pound block of steel and glass (or a 4,500-pound SUV), at high speeds, with little separation but a line of paint on the ground. Split-second miscues accelerate quickly into massive problems, and sometimes tragedies. We simply forget that the tools we use in our daily lives put others in the way of harm, and one little slip can change lives forever (Deuteronomy 19:4–10).

Third, we owe our primary attention to the people physically around us. When a person asked Jesus to define “neighbor,” is it any surprise he pointed to a road (Luke 10:29–37)? In the digital age, the remotest person on the planet can command our attention away from the immediate needs around us. On top of this, our brains get a shot of dopamine with something as simple as a ping or beep on our phones (one reason why Facebook cues are more powerful to us than road signs, as I mentioned earlier).

In other words, texting-and-driving is a prime example (among many) of how our digital age veils us from our immediate calling to our physical neighbors around us. The safety of our neighbor calls for our full attention. Our secondary calling is to those who are not physically in proximity. They can wait until the engine is off.

Self-Control

The real solution to texting-and-driving is not external enforcement but internal resolve and personal discipline.

Dr. Ray Bingham, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says it well:

For now there is only one sure answer, and it’s not a 100 percent fix, but it is pretty effective. It’s called good old-fashioned self-control and self-regulation. Yes, that’s boring, I know. No fancy gizmos or whiz-bang technologies. Perhaps someday there will be fully automated vehicles, and before that there will likely be technology that can help drivers avoid distraction, remain alert, and maintain their attention on the task of driving. In the meantime, it’s up to each of us to do our part to promote roadway safety by avoiding distractions while we are driving.

This is all very simple, and very practical.

When you drive, keep your phone out of sight. Keep it in your pocket or purse. Keep it in the back seat. Turn it off when you drive. Use another source for your music. Do whatever it takes to show love to your closest neighbors (your fellow drivers and your passengers).

Cars are not me-pods. Cars require a keen awareness of what’s happening at all times outside of the car. What we need is an other-centered self-control that is rooted in our love for God, and then expressed in love to our neighbors on the road.

Texting-and-driving is dangerous, stupid, and illegal. Teens do it. Parents do it. Women do it. Men do it. And it’s time to stop.

Christians are called to stop texting-and-driving not just because it’s illegal. More importantly, texting-and-driving is a form of neighbor-neglect, and neighbor-neglect is a sin against our God that calls for intentional measures of self-control.


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