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Hang Up and Review Your Driving Behavior:

I guess at the top one has to review their level of faith in bumper stickers. You can easily argue their perennial value, since displaying an Obama bumper sticker right now indicates your continuing faith in the man and his efforts at the end of his first year in office. As I wrote two years ago in a related piece, the back of a car from left to right can often outline a person’s cultural and spiritual journey over the course of many years. Grateful Dead yields to Radiohead which gives way to the more tranquil “Yoga for Life.”

But lately bumper sticker dialogues are getting prickly with the imperative “Hang Up and Drive.” Various “Get off your cell phone” messages have been appearing with greater frequency on the backs of Santa Monica vehicles, and readers of this column will know that I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. But in case any of this spills into violence, I’ll state for the record that I don’t personally issue commands from the tailgate of my 1988 station wagon because I’m not certain behavior modification works at the bumper sticker level.

For politics, bumper stickers are fantastic. Although hopefully there were no freeway accidents resulting in expensive hospitalization and caused by drivers bearing opposing health care reform messages on their vehicles. To incite a change in a life-threatening personal habit such as operating a two-ton vehicle with a phone held to your cranium, however, it seems to me you’d have to get in at a level deeper than “Hang up and drive.” Perhaps invoke some shame (“Mom would want you to hang up and drive”) or guilt (“Having a nice phone call, Mr. Distracto?”) or imply a lack of development (“Even monkeys stop swinging on a branch to eat a banana”).

It’s fun to make jokes. But last week a report from investigators concluded that the 2008 Metro Link train crash that claimed 25 lives was in fact caused by a distracted engineer who was texting and sailed through a red light. If there’s an argument inside that which reinforces phone calls while driving, I’d love to hear it.

I know I won’t appear wild-eyed about this, since we all know that people are continuing to hold cell phones to their head while driving despite the change in our laws. However, I’ve become convinced that changing this situation involves reaching in and impacting some deep needs on the part of violators. I don’t play a doctor on TV, but consider that right now our city is struggling with what to do about cigarette-addicted smokers poisoning the air in apartment buildings. People who illogically drive and fiddle with cell phones suffer a similar syndrome in which they continue a behavior dangerous to themselves and others that they lack the psychological strength to control.

That’s right, talk-and-drive addicts… you are weak. How do I know? (Stands up to address the circle gathered in the church basement.) My name is Steve, and I have struggled not to talk and drive. (“Hi, Steve…”)

You can witness some frightening scenes almost any day of the week in our fair city. One of them is a parent babbling into a cell phone held to their head while driving with a baby strapped into the back seat. Another is the 21st century event of somebody driving with a hands-free rig… but gesturing like crazy during an emotional argument with someone on the phone. Your first impression is that the driver is having a breakdown. In terms of rational operation of a motor vehicle, yes, they are.

Thus can we understand the concern and agitation of someone brandishing a “Hang up and drive” bumper sticker. But the assertive tone of the slogan, bordering on a kind of collective parenting, may only serve to describe an attitude and not have the desired impact on violators. Just as smokers have made statements before our city council on the question of their rights inside the apartment building issue, many chronic and addicted cell-phoning drivers (let’s call them “cellers”) will bristle at any “Hang up and drive” slogan… and continue blathering one-handed into a horizon of danger they’re too distracted to see.

Years ago a popular bumper sticker advised other drivers to “Watch my rear end, not hers.” That sticker carried a lot of implications, not the least of which was that thousands of years of male sexual behavior could be modified with a catchy phrase. With “cellers” we’re up against similar primal instincts: Validation (I’m needed so much I must be on the phone), self-image (Busy? Don’t I look busy?), and insecurity (They’ll start the meeting without me. Better call them.) The simple but sobering truth is that as recently as 20 years ago, we lived each day without these devices and didn’t have them to exhibit these behaviors. There were still train accidents, but not because of a device whose appeal is at least 40 percent pure vanity. However since I, too, have struggled not to cell while driving… I offer this amended bumper sticker: “Please hang-up and drive. You’re making us look bad… to monkeys.”

Contact Steve Stajich

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