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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Smart Bombs: Beware of clownish laws

Before getting into today’s topic, please head over to YouTube, enter “Test Your Awareness: Do The Test” and watch. I’ll wait here.

Finished? OK. Did you notice the moonwalking gorilla the first time? Me either.

The reason I’m bothering you with this monkey business is that it relates to proposed legislation to make talking on a cell phone a primary traffic offense. Currently, it is a secondary offense, which means you have to commit some other violation, such as having a broken taillight or failing to signal before turning, before you can be pulled over and cited for talking on a hand-held phone.

For those who didn’t make it to YouTube, the video depicts equal people dressed in all white or all black moving about in a circle. Viewers are prompted to count how many times the people dressed in white pass a basketball to each other. As this is going on, a person in a gorilla costume enters the scene and emulates Michael Jackson’s famous dance step.

Most people don’t see this because they are distracted by the task of counting. This shows that it is the distraction of the mind, not the handling of the cell phone that causes accidents. As behavioral research shows, we may see what’s out there as we drive, but it may not register if the mind is attentive to a telephone conversation.

Another study by Western Washington University came up with a similar finding, according to Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Camden. In this one, Ira Hyman, a professor of psychology, surveyed students as they strolled by a popular campus square. He introduced a clown pedaling a unicycle to the scene. When asked if they saw the clown, a much higher percentage of students who were texting and talking on cell phones said no.

Hyman calls this “inattentional blindness.”

OK, but any distraction will cause that, right? So why not outlaw listening to music or talking to other people in the car? Hyman’s research, according to a New York Times article, shows that those distractions aren’t as severe. When asked if they saw a clown, 71 percent of those walking with a friend said they did. About 61 percent of people listening to music saw it. But only 25 percent of cell phone talkers said yes.

These clown and gorilla stunts are supported by research on actual drivers.

Carnegie Mellon researchers used brain imaging to show that listening to someone on a phone reduced the brain activity needed for braking and steering. Reaction times are slowed, and that leads to more mistakes. In a University of Utah study, driving simulators were used to gauge reaction times for people talking on phones or exceeding the legal limit for alcohol. The talkers fared just as poorly. Permitting hands-free talking is like allowing drivers to get drunk on whiskey but not wine.

So if legislators in Oympia want to revisit the cell phone issue, they need to acknowledge that they were distracted by a fallacy the first time. Now that they know there’s a moonwalking gorilla, there’s no excuse for missing it.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.
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