Occasionally I read about something that is so stupid, so outrageously asinine, so unspeakably idiotic, that I start to to twitch and vibrate, my fingers clasp at thin air, and my guts turn over with disgust and anxiety. My jaw hinges and my lips airlessly mouth biblical curses and demonic vexations. The only way to prevent my head exploding is to get it out of my system. Thankfully, I have this blog. Here goes.
There have been a few recent incidents in New York in which iPod-wearing pedestrians have been struck and sometimes killed by cars while they were crossing the street. Apparently the iPod wearers were so caught up in the music that they were completely zoned-out and disconnected to their physical environment, a phenomenon referred to by some as “iPod oblivion.” Result: they blithely stepped into oncoming traffic and were promptly mowed down by moving vehicles.
Tragic, yes. I would even say stupid. After all, we’re talking about New York, where the drivers are notoriously psychopathic. What sober, rational person walks around the streets of New York without being in a full state of awareness?
But that’s not what has me in my current state. No, it’s the reaction to these stupid and senseless tragedies that has me in a near frenzy of rampage against idiocy. The reaction is a bill before the New York state legislature that calls for a ban on using audio players, Blackberries, and cellphones while crossing the street.
That is sheer madness. But for the sake of brevity, and my own sanity, I will keep to the obvious. (OK, the second obvious, as the first obvious is that you could never in a million years enforce such a ban.)
As you know, these modern times are rife with laws and regulations designed to take all the fun out of life for the sake of our own protection. Smoking bans, trans-fat bans, using-mobile-phones-while-driving bans. You name it. As much as I’d like to rail against those bans on the basis of personal freedoms, I find myself supporting most of them.
The reason is simple – I don’t mind supporting a ban on an activity that can or does cause harm to others. Let’s take a closer look at the three examples I’ve listed.
Smoking bans. There is no law against smoking. You can smoke at home, in the street, and in your car. You climb a tree and smoke, or you can smoke while canoeing down a river. But you cannot smoke in bars, restaurants, offices, or other places where your smoke can cause other people to feel discomfort and to potentially suffer health problems. In brief, the smoking bans are bans on inflicting your smoke on other people.
Trans-fat bans. There is considerable talk lately of outright bans on trans-fats in food. Some places have already introduced these bans. But there is no ban, anywhere, on eating food with trans-fats. The ban is on producing food with trans-fat. There’s a big difference. When you eat trans-fats you are only harming yourself, but when you produce trans-fatty foods you are harming the people who consume it. One could argue that the onus is on the consumer to be aware of what they eat, but what about kids, poor people, and the simply unintelligent? Given that trans-fats are artificially created substances that provide no benefit to the consumer, and they are known, unequivocally, to be a serious health hazard, I have no problem banning them.
Bans on using mobile phones while driving. The human brain is incapable of multitasking. What we think of as multitasking is really just rapidly switching from task to task – but our attention can only really be on one thing at a time. I have personally witnessed people driving cars through red lights, almost mowing down pedestrians (myself included) because they had a mobile phone stuck to their ear, along with that glazed “talking into space” look in their eyes. Their minds were on the conversation, not the task of driving. I don’t care if you think you can do it safely, many people cannot. The ban is not there to protect you from yourself (who cares if you drive off a cliff while yakking on the phone? That’s your problem), it is there to protect other people from your inattentive driving.
This brings us to this insanely stupid proposal to ban the use of electronic gadgets while crossing the streets of New York. The big difference here is that people who do so are not risking the health and well being of others (aside from the dents on the cars that hit them). Engaging in those activities is a risk to no one but yourself, and frankly, it’s a really, really, really tiny risk. Millions of people cross streets in New York every day while engaged with their gadgets, and hardly any of them are a hazard to themselves. I would argue that none of them have ever been a hazard to anyone else.
So what kind of an idiot would propose an unenforceable law that bans a harmless activity that is engaged in, without any risk to self or others, by millions of people every day? What kind of a mind cannot see the difference between an activity that has a real, proven risk of harming others, and an activity that has only a microscopic risk of harming oneself?
I cannot believe that this proposal has any chance of being made into law. If it does, my view of the American collective psyche – already a bit shaky – will be utterly shattered, and I will have no choice but to emigrate to New Zealand in order to get as far away from that place as possible.