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Dying for conversation

Refuge in midair soon will be gone

– We may soon have to endure extreme boredom at 30,000 feet as the once-friendly skies open to electronic devices and smartphones.

Will this mean that the Delta Shuttle is going to become like the train, where – unless you can find a seat in the quiet car – there’s no escaping loud, one-sided conversations about who’s going to drop off the SUV for a brake job or the tedious tale of the sullen waiter at dinner the night before?

Until now, the loudmouths had been muzzled by pricing issues: The clunky Airfone in the back of the seat costs about $5 per minute. Even Type A’s don’t want to talk that badly.

With the airlines encouraging our phone addiction, being ungettable will be as rare as clocks with hands and frozen custard. The joy of those pre-iPhone days of not reaching out and touching someone – or being touched – will be lost along with that warning to friends, family and employers: “I’ll be out of pocket for the next two hours.” So long to stolen time for mile-high hooky.

Fortunately, chirping mobile phones on flights won’t make flying more dangerous; you’ll only want to kill your fellow passengers metaphorically. The menace is far greater on the ground. Electronic devices in the car can and will kill us – literally. The Department of Transportation found that chatting drivers are four times as likely to be in a crash, and distraction from phone use while driving (hand held or hands free) slows a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol level of .08 percent, or being legally drunk.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving made inebriated driving socially unacceptable, but there is no similarly powerful movement to shame distracted drivers. Talking while driving is terrible and texting while driving is worse. Looking down at a small keyboard, thumbing away, to send a message or to read one while your foot is on the gas, is insane. Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending, or just reading, a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, or as long as it takes to drive the length of a football field at 55 mph.

I swore off texting while driving after a close call with a post that jumped out at me. The car bore the scars. It could have been the driver. Yet I still find it hard not to answer calls, even though rooting around to find the phone creates a whole other level of hazard. I’m what the experts call emboldened by my near miss: I managed to avoid catastrophe once; I’m sure I can do it again.

There are lots of us. It is hard to curb one of life’s burning passions – the desire to communicate with one another – even when we are hurtling down the road at warp speed. This spring, AT&T released a study showing that about half of all adults admitted they text at the wheel, as did 43 percent of teenagers. This, even though 98 percent of adults acknowledge it is wrong. More alarming, six of 10 people who said they weren’t texting while driving three years ago are now doing so. (It is to AT&T’s credit that it made public a study that works against its own financial interests.)

Not that talking is much better. Hands-free devices were supposed to help, but they don’t. It turns out that it’s not holding the phone to your ear that makes you lose focus but the very act of having a conversation. Studies show that the odds a driver will stay in their own lane are no higher because their hands are theoretically steering.

So far, nothing has worked to halt the practice – not even expensive tickets. (New York City went on an enforcement binge in 2009: In one 24-hour crackdown, 7,432 tickets were written for texting or talking on a mobile phone while driving, compared with 580 on a typical day, yet New Yorkers haven’t changed their bad habits.) Nor have videos of lethal accidents proved dissuasive. (There are plenty on YouTube.)

The statistics alone should do the job. If today is like most days, nine people will die and more than 1,000 will be injured in crashes caused by distracted driving. Do you really still want to check whether you need to pick up a quart of milk on the way home?

It should be easy to pass some Draconian laws and get the money to enforce them (41 states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging by drivers and 11 states ban drivers from using hand-held phones). It’s not as if there’s a lobby working to protect the practice, as there were lobbies arguing in favor of tobacco (remember smoking on airplanes?) and cars that crumpled upon the slightest impact.

The need for enforcement goes down once a law takes hold; then self-enforcement sets in. Who fails to wear a seat belt or buckle a child in the back seat? An army of vigilantes rises up should someone light up a cigarette in a restaurant.

I’m going to run an experiment to wean myself off talking in the car as part of Mothers Against Distracted Driving, MADD II. I’m going to put the phone in the back seat. And if I sense someone is calling me from a car, I’ll tell them to hang up.

If I still feel the need to talk while traveling at high speed, I can always hop on a plane.

Margaret Carlson, former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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