I'm glad I did most of my formative years in the era of “low-tech.” I think it has probably made me a little more survivable in the face of catastrophe because I learned that screaming alone isn’t likely to save my life. I remember thinking “how cool” when the mobile phones came out – those big block phones with the fat antennas were state of the art when I was a probation officer. Probation officers then went into the field without communication – unless they took their own personal mobile phones or had a CB radio – and we didn’t get paid enough to afford either.
One day, I thought it would be a good idea to stay in touch with the office while I was out in the community checking on my bad guys and so signed out the office mobile phone.
Imagine my surprise when my boss called me not 15 minutes after I’d left the office to ask me if I’d received a letter pertaining to fees or fines or something on one of my 80-plus cases. I had to tell him I had no idea if the letter had come in; if he needed to know that urgently, he could a) check my inbox, b) pull the file and see if the letter was where it was supposed to be in the file, or c) I could drive back to the office and look for the letter myself and let him know. And all this conversation while I negotiated my standard shift car through heavy traffic in downtown streets and trying to balance that brick of a phone on my shoulder.
No, no, no – it’s not important, was his response, I was just wondering if you got that letter. He then called me four more times in the two hours I was out of the office to ask equally mundane housekeeping questions – things he never would ask me even when I was sitting in my office right across the hall from him. But somehow, knowing I had a phone and could be reached in the field, he felt obliged to call me every time a thought flitted through his head.
Thus endeth my enchantment with mobile phones – but not my frustration with people who seem to operate with the mouth perpetually in motion and the brain in idle.
The thing everyone says is, “you need a phone in case of an emergency.” Seemed to me having a mobile phone tended to manufacture crises – because people, if they know they can just reach out and touch someone, absolutely think they have to do just that – and for no particular reason. The mobile phone was a distraction, not an aid. I was safer without it because I paid attention to what I was doing, where I was going and what kind of situation I was heading into. I made a habit of planning ahead and therefore avoided the kind of emergencies that might have required a mobile phone.
It’s been 15 years since the mobile phone lesson. I finally got a cell phone and let my landline go – and it was money, not “in case of an emergency” that motivated me. I don’t know how to retrieve voicemail – if my friends and family want me, they can call back until I answer. And if I don’t want to answer, I don’t. I don’t take pictures with the camera feature. I don’t play video games or download ringtones or music. And I’m not so dumb as to think that the phone in my pocket makes me any safer by virtue of the fact I can “call someone in an emergency.”
You see, I know that the phone is to report an emergency; it’s not to save me in an emergency. Avoiding the emergency if possible and getting to a position of safety before reporting an emergency is my job – not the phone company’s and not the 911 dispatch operator’s.
I don’t know when people came to believe that their cell phones were tantamount to the proverbial Star Trek communication devices and all you have to say is, “Beam me up, Scotty!” to get out of whatever predicament you’re in. But in recent weeks, we’ve had two spectacular cases of people dying in emergency situations while apparently expecting 911 dispatchers to figure out how to save them.
In one case, the fellow and his family were in a car with a piece of carpeting wedged over the accelerator pedal, racing over 100 mph into a busy intersection and into a fatal collision. In the other, the lady was in her minivan when she drove into floodwaters; the vehicle was picked up by the floods and washed up for several minutes against some trees before it overturned and sank with her inside. Hideous, preventable deaths – a loss to their families and their communities, but their deaths are meaningless if we don’t pay attention to the real lessons that should be learned from these tragedies.
In both cases, the victims, rather than using both hands and all of their brains to attempt to regain control of themselves and their situation – or at least minimize their immediate risk, grabbed their cell phones and quit thinking. I understand that in a panic people are reacting – not thinking. But thinking is what you have to do first if you want to stay alive.
In the jammed gas pedal case, there were several critical seconds the driver had to respond to the rapidly accelerating car – I mean, common sense tells you the car didn’t just SUDDENLY reach 100 miles per hour – it takes time to get to that speed. There were other people in the car who could’ve talked to dispatch while the driver fought to free the accelerator from the upholstery. He could’ve slammed it into neutral – better a ruined transmission than being dead. He could’ve tried to lift the pedal by putting his foot under the pedal itself and lifting or reached down and jerked the floor pad back. He didn’t have long to react, but he had several critical seconds to recognize a problem and respond – and his response was to grab the cell phone, tying up one hand while trying to maneuver an out-of-control vehicle, and talk while attempting to survive an increasingly desperate situation -- a situation beyond the control of anything a 911 operator could have done.
In the minivan case, first, the woman drove into the floodwaters and the vehicle was washed off the road. This woman had over 12 minutes in the floating vehicle to figure out how to open a window or door or the back of the minivan and get into the trees the vehicle was wedged against BEFORE the vehicle filled up, overturned and sank. She spent the entire 12 minutes on the phone, panicked, crying for help until she drowned. Beyond keeping her head in an air pocket and the phone to her ear, there’s no indication she did anything significant to extricate herself.
A cell phone is not going to make you rape-proof, break-proof, abduction-proof, death-proof. It’s a reporting device. The people who answer your call are going to have to take precious minutes to figure out what kind of situation you’re in – and you’re the one who should know best; you’re already facing it. So put the phone down; it’s for reporting emergencies – not extricating you from them. Turn your mouth off, the brain on – and call after you’ve gotten yourself into a sustainable situation, not before.
But I think we all need to break the dependence on cell phones as decision-making devices and make a habit of leaving the things at home a couple times a week while we re-learn self-reliance and cognitive functioning. So my advice -- in an emergency, keep your hands free, shut up and THINK. Odds are you’ll live longer.