Dowd: Hands-free 'technocrack' is still deadly

One night several years ago, my mom broke a bone in her neck. I stayed late at the hospital with her.

Driving home on a mostly deserted road, I checked my cell phone messages.

I didn't notice the red light coming up or the car stopped at the light. I banged into the back of it, and even though the damage was minor, it was a scary moment.

I swore to myself I'd never use a cell phone in a car again. But, of course, I did.

Washington, D.C., police will pull you over if they see you using a cell phone that you're holding up to your ear, but not if you're hands-free.

Ominously, research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, suppressed for years and released on Tuesday after petitions were filed by advocacy groups, shows that there are "negligible differences" in accident risk whether you're holding the phone or not. Hands-free devices may even enhance the danger by lulling you into complacency.

It is the conversation that pulls focus. Studies show that drivers who talk on cell phones are four times more likely to be in a crash and drive just as erratically as people with an 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level.

In one study cited by the highway safety agency, "drivers found it easier to drive drunk than to drive while using a phone, even when it was hands-free."

The agency buried its head in the sand, keeping the research to itself for years and ignoring the fact that soon nearly all Americans would own cell phones and that the phones are always getting smarter and more demanding.

Americans are so addicted to techno-surfing that they've gotten hubristic about how many machines they can juggle simultaneously. One reporter I know recently filed a story from his laptop while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway.

As John Ratey, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who specializes in the science of attention, told The Times' Matt Richtel for his chilling series, "Driven to Distraction," using digital devices gives you "a dopamine squirt." That explains the Pavlovian impulse of people who are out with friends or dates to ignore them and check their BlackBerrys and cell phones, even if 99 out of 100 messages are uninteresting. They're truffle- hunting for that scintillating one.

Americans woke up one day to find that they were don't-miss-a- moment addicts who feel compelled to respond to all messages immediately.

The tech industry is our drug dealer, feeding the intense social and economic pressure to stay constantly in touch with employers, colleagues, friends and family.

It also explains why Christopher Hill, a 21-year-old from Oklahoma who killed a woman last September when he ran a red light while on his cell phone and rammed into her SUV, tried to keep dialing and driving with a headset his mother gave him.

He "found his mind wandering into his phone call so much that 'I nearly missed a light,' " he told Richtel. Now he says he rarely uses the phone.

Hollywood offered a cautionary story with the depressing "Seven Pounds," which begins with Will Smith spoiling his perfect life when he BlackBerrys while driving in his fancy car with his gorgeous new fiancée. He crashes into another car, killing six strangers and his girlfriend. The movie ends with a poisonous jellyfish in an icy bathtub. Don't ask.

Left, literally, to our own devices, we spiral out of control.

States should outlaw drivers from talking on phones — except in an emergency — and using digital devices that cause you to drift and swerve; or at least mandate a $10,000 fine for getting in an accident while phoning or Twittering.

Auto companies are busy creating new crack hits for our self-destructive cravings. Ford is developing a system that would let drivers use phones, music players and surf the Internet with voice commands and audible responses.

Sounds like a computerized death machine. But, as our dealers know, we'll never disconnect.