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Is Multitasking a Crime?

No using iPods while crossing the street.
No talking on cell phones while biking.
Should lawmakers try to legislate common sense?

By Tom Zeller Jr.


A few months ago, a New York State Senator introduced a bill in the State Legislature that would, he said, tackle the problem of "iPod oblivion."

This condition, Senator Carl Kruger suggests, is suffered by the thousands of owners of electronic gadgets, from Palm Pilots to cell phones. His bill would make it a crime to "enter and cross a crosswalk while engaging in the use of an electronic device in a city with a population of one million or more." Violators would face a court summons and a $100 fine.

Kruger's justification for the bill, as submitted to the legislature, is this: "Since September, three pedestrians have been killed and one critically injured while crossing the street listening to electronic music devices. The use of electronic devices while crossing the street poses a threat to the public safety of pedestrians and motorists. It is impossible to be fully aware of one's own surroundings when occupied in using an electronic device. This legislation would eliminate this threat to public safety."

Kruger's proposal is not the only one of its kind. A number of state legislatures are considering measures to stop people from multitasking in ways that may jeopardize their safety. Four states and Washington, D.C., already have laws that prohibit using a handheld cell phone while driving.

Shaving While Driving

Some states are thinking about going further: The New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill that would require hands-free cell phones for people who want to talk while riding bicycles; violators would receive fines of $100 to $250. And Vermont lawmakers are considering a bill prohibiting cell-phone use, eating, drinking, personal grooming, and interacting with pets while driving.

Matt Sundeen of the National Conference of State Legislatures says most of this kind of legislation focuses on cell-phone use, though in the last few years some states have tried to tackle other driving distractions.

"Anybody who drives knows there's a lot of bizarre behavior on the roads—whether it's people with pets on their laps or shaving or trying to read," Sundeen says.

Critics of the proposals suggest they're beyond the proper role of government, and emblematic of a trend towards what critics call "the nanny state." As one New Jersey legislator said, "You can't legislate common sense."

A sampling of comments on the Internet suggests that many people agree, finding the recent New York proposal excessive. "Perhaps we should ban deaf and blind people from public streets as well, just in case," wrote Steve Consilvio in a New York Times blog. "Who will protect us from the lawmakers?"

It's a typical legislative reaction, according to Michael Masnick, the president of techdirt.com, a technology Web site. "First there were bans on yakking while driving; then it was yakking while bicycling. So it's only logical that they'd go after yakking while walking," he wrote in Techdirt's blog.

It's tempting to demonize the ubiquitous technological gadgets, like the cell phone and the iPod, that have brought this issue to broad attention. Several recent studies, however, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. Their findings suggest that multitasking increases the chances of making mistakes and that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking when working in an office, studying, or driving.

But the problem is nothing new. For decades, drivers have fiddled with the radio, read maps, rifled around for CDs, and applied lipstick or combed their hair while driving.

The Real Problem?

These are all distractions—and sometimes tragically so. Indeed, one rationale for these laws is that the offender isn't the only one who suffers from his or her actions: Other people can be injured or killed in an accident that happens as a result of, say, "driving while yakking."

"The problem isn't cell-phone use; it's stupid people who can't figure out when is and when isn't a good time to talk on the phone," Masnick says. "Making the activity illegal won't alleviate the problems their stupidity will cause."

Sure, people will get hit by buses while listening to iPods. But then, they've been getting hit by buses for decades anyway—while reading a newspaper, talking to companions, or simply daydreaming about a better day.

Should we outlaw daydreaming in crosswalks?