Burton on the Bay:

Cellular Road Warriors

You won't ring up this fisherman in his Subaru

"Mr. Watson, come here, I want you."

            -Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, March 10, 1876


That's when it all started. Some might think Edison's incandescent bulb, perhaps Marconi's radio, Whitney's cotton gin, Fulton's steamboat, McCormick's reaper, J.L. Baird's boob tube (or whose ever it was) or his camera was the idea that has had the greatest impact on our lives. But I'll opt for AGB and his telephone.

Not to say it's all been good. It hasn't. Now the Maryland General Assembly is reviewing one of the many problems that have erupted since Bell made his famous phone call going on 123 years back.

Methinks he should have left instant communications to Sam Morse and his dots and dashes - 41 years in use at the time of Bell's initial call, or better still, to the boys with tin cans connected by taut string. What hell the telephone has wrought, not the least of which is practically pushing into oblivion the fine and personal art of writing letters.

Curiously, while individuals like you and I have given up the written word in person-to-person communications in favor of the phone, or perhaps the computer, the business world hasn't. Instead, it uses both via junk mail and phone solicitors.

You tell me which is worse: a mail or postal box crammed with printed garbage fit for the landfill or being called from the dinner table to listen to the harangue of a home improvement huckster as the soup cools?

Perhaps that's something the pols in Annapolis should look into, even the solons in Washington. But these days we're reluctant to turn to our legislators for help - considering their track record. We all know what "help" from Washington or Annapolis means to us - and to them.

For us, solutions not infrequently are worse than the original problem. For them, an opportunity to accept, even solicit, from lobbyists food and booze on the table - and whatever else passes under it.

Seeing that the role lobbyists play in legislation is also under consideration in the Big A at this time, perhaps it's appropriate we take a look at the influence of peddlers in this column one day soon. But we're straying from the subject at hand.


Wining and Dialing

Cellular phones in motor vehicles. Should their use be allowed to drivers on the highway, especially the hand-held models? You know - one hand holding the phone, the other writing a note, grasping a hot coffee or perhaps making a gesture. Hey, what's holding onto the steering wheel?

A great concept gone wrong, that's what the phone in the jalopy is. Name me one person whose ear isn't glued to a mobile phone when cruising on the interstate who fell for that old malarkey a couple years ago that cellular use while underway didn't contribute to collisions, injuries and even deaths on the road.

Hmmmm. All I hear is silence. Somebody must have hung up on me.

But Maryland's motorists are hung up on cell phones, whether in the convenience store, the ball game, market, post office, sidewalk, movie, or their auto; hell, probably even on the ski slope, maybe even in the outhouse. Undoubtedly, there are some on fixed budgets who'd opt for instant communication's gratification rather than indoor plumbing.

In the beginning, it appeared the modern times' electronic genius who came up with the idea of a practical and affordable phone system workable for motor vehicles had a good idea, a plan to make highways and city streets safer to drive. Problems? Just, dial Mom, Pop, AAA or the cops.

Trouble was, at the beginning when it could probably have been done without much dissent, no one thought of legal insistence that the vehicle be stopped and off the road before the latest version of the Bell gadget was turned on.

Now that police and paramedics are mopping motorists up from the asphalt and concrete, some with hand and ear still cemented to the phone, our legislators are reviewing the problem - some undoubtedly talking on their own horns as they drive to and from Annapolis.

Are we foolish enough to think they'll come up with a reasonable solution? Ask your delegate, dial 410/444-4444. You'll probably find 'em somewhere on Route 97 doing 75 plus in a Lincoln Town Car with trooper proof license plates and late for a lobster and wine fest at some fancy restaurant with a lobbying rep for one of the multitude of cell phone providers.

You might get a busy signal. After all, he/she has to make a call to Art Modell to be sure his/her season sky box tickets are available for the Ravens' PSINet Stadium, and he/she is on the House's Undersight Professional Sports Committee.

If your delegate's cellular has Caller ID and Call Waiting, the mobile conversation probably won't get interrupted for you anyhow - unless you bought a table of $100 tickets at a fund raisers. So, perhaps it's best you forget about calling; at least you'll be doing other motorists on Route 97 a favor.


Legislative Busy Signals

Being from the era when one had to vigorously crank a handle on a big hardwood box to get the attention of an operator to give her a number so she could plug a wire into another phone lead somewhere on her big board to complete the connection, I'm content with the convenience of a modern phone with push buttons in the house. Knowing I can get away from the damned contraption when I want by leaving the domicile is comforting. Taking it with me in the Subaru just to chat or conduct business, no way.

But judging from what I see on the road or any other public place these days, I'm in the minority. You'd think a phone is a life support system. But use one on the highway, and you - also whomever you barrel into - might need just that, a life-support system. If you're still conscious, you can dial 911 yourself.

Of course, there are some good things about cell phones. Just ask Sheila King, the 35-year-old Baltimore Countian abducted by two men and forced into the trunk of her Subaru, from which she dialed police after a long ride, following which the car was parked and the culprits departed. Without the phone, she could still be therein.

We're told 1.5 million Marylanders have cell phones - 68 million people nationwide - which prompts concerns about how many of them dial or answer the darned things while cruising along our highways. Especially when Maryland State Police claim that in 1997, there were 296 fatal accidents on our highways due to "distractions in general," things like changing tapes and compact disks, cellular conversation or perhaps even lighting a pipe.

But, let's face it: Handling a phone call, especially when dialing, is a major distraction when the foot is on the accelerator, and ought to go down the tubes - of course, only after our legislators get their due from the powerful communications lobbyists. Enough said.

| Issue 6 |

Volume VII Number 6
February 11-17, 1999
New Bay Times

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