I’ve not had a chance to catch everything, but John Lee’s testimony yesterday was a high point for me — and not just because he’s in Traffic. I never thought I’d hear William James’ name show up in government testimony, and another front, one idea that intrigued me in his presentation was not just the idea that there’s temporary distraction (eyes off road time, fumbling for an object), or cognitive distraction (e.g, a cell-phone conversation), but this more meta-level distraction in which one’s role as a driver is essentially “distracted,” into some other role — busy office worker, mother tending to children in back seat, diner in mobile kitchen — which subverts what should be the most most primary role, driver (which is a job title in itself, after all). It also reminds me of something Andrew Pearce from the Global Road Safety Partnership mentioned to me, which is the different ways, through training and culture and mission, drivers and pilots address their task:
a.) The primary thought in the mind of most people who get in a car and drive it is the objective of getting to the other end of the journey.
b.) The primary thought in the mind of a pilot is getting his passengers safely off the ground and back to land.
The idea is to make a.) more like b.), with drivers considering not only the safety of their own passengers, but as fellow road users as “passengers” of a sort.
Some people are thinking this way, of course: The NTSB, appropriately, recently announced a total mobile device ban for employees using government cars; its administrator, Deborah Hersman, interestingly invoked the concept of the “sterile cockpit,” which prohibits non-mission critical conversation and activity during the most sensitive flight times. This reminds me in turn of something I heard while out at Stanford a couple weeks back, talking to Clifford Nass. He noted that someone had asked him something about multitasking in the context of Capt. “Sully” and his heroic river landing. Well clearly that shows that people can do multiple things at once, even in extreme situations. Yes, sort of, but of course, everything he was doing was integrally related to the process of landing that craft. He wasn’t phoning his wife to see what he needed at the store or trying to find just the right music on his iPod for an emergency water-borne landing.
As someone mentioned at the summit yesterday, there’s probably not the political will or even the money to train drivers with the same rigor as pilots, but I’m not just talking skills here, I’m talking about the whole idea of the culture of safety, which drivers seem to so easily disregard (and government reflects in, for example, its extreme reluctance to take away one’s license, even in the face of multiple serious infractions). In story after story I keep reading the same stock quotes from people, “we lead busy lives,” “there’s more pressure than ever before,” blah, blah, blah. Guess what, we all lead busy lives — but not all of us take it out on those around us in traffic with our negligence — and in fact they might feel less busy if one didn’t feel the need to text and talk their way home through a long commute. I’ll close with a few relevant thoughts I had on Dalton Conley’s book Elsewhere U.S.A.:
Why should such free-floating anxiety exist among people in seemingly comfortable positions? One hears of executives being constantly uprooted in a job market rife with downsizing. Parents worry that their careers are not allowing them to spend enough time with their children. No one feels as if they have any time. But Conley points out that the facts tell a different story: Fewer Americans moved in 2000 than did in 1950. The percentage of people logging more than ten years with large firms has increased. This generation of fathers, he observes, “spends more time with their children than any in recent history.” As for the time squeeze, a study has found that higher-income women, even when they work the same number of hours as those earning less, report feeling more pressed for time. As Conley notes, “when you can earn more per hour, the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.”
The frenetic, self-regulating regimen of one’s inner time manager is the chief culprit, Conley argues, in the forever-harried state of postindustrial labor. For the first time in history, the more people are paid, the more they feel they must work. Income inequality has risen absolutely, but particularly within the upper echelons of the professional classes. “From any link in the chain,” he writes, “it looks like everyone else is rushing away.” So the presumed leisure time that money might buy merely breeds anxiety over how much the moment is costing.
This anxiety is all but inscribed into the software of devices such as the BlackBerry, the info-status accessory par excellence for this generation of knowledge workers. Whether the device, which corrodes the boundary between work and leisure, makes one more productive is open for debate; the science writer Stefan Klein has noted that “when we are under stress, we are no longer able to filter out unimportant matters; we become scatterbrained, flighty and reckless.” So cue the BlackBerry users, working the digital age’s own set of worry beads. “We tell ourselves that the stress comes from a lack of time, even though it is really just the other way around,” Klein observes. “We are not stressed because we have no time; rather, we have no time because we are stressed.”