Driving Without a Smartphone

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A new law in Georgia discourages drivers from even touching a screen. Whether or not it improves safety, it could help break people’s phone habits.

Last week, for the first time in years, I stopped my car at a red light and didn’t bide the time by fondling my smartphone. This isn’t a proud admission, but it is an honest one: Pretty much every time I stop my car at a traffic signal, I pick up my phone and do something with it. I’m not even sure what. I “check my phone,” as people say. Checking your phone doesn’t really mean checking your email or text messages or social-media feed. Mostly, it means checking to see if there’s anything to check.

I’m even less proud to admit that I didn’t stop this practice by choice. On July 1, a new hands-free law went into effect in Georgia, where I live, which makes checking your phone while driving illegal—or a lot harder to do legally, anyway. Texting while driving has been prohibited here since 2010, but the new law, HB 673 or the “Hands-Free Law,” goes much further: It appears to prohibit drivers from physically contacting the device under almost any circumstances unless legally parked. Not even if the phone is attached to a dashboard mount. Not even to adjust Google Maps while stopped at a red light. Not even to skip the track on Spotify.  

To some drivers here, this seems like an extreme step—if indeed they even understand the details of the law, which is somewhat ambiguous. But there are reasons to take such a step. Like other states, Georgia is trying to reduce the dangers of distracted driving, which has contributed to a substantial rise in traffic collisions here since 2015, as it has elsewhere in the nation, too.

It remains to be seen whether laws like HB 673 will really reduce distracted driving and its associated costs in lives, property, and insurance rates. But whether it does or doesn’t, the law might produce another effect—to break the habit of checking a phone for no reason or for bad reasons, just because there’s nothing else to do.

I first noticed the change while idling at a red light at an intersection near an Exxon station in Midtown Atlanta. The nexus of Monroe Road and Piedmont Avenue is a bottleneck for commuters, and traffic backs up in every direction at rush hour. There is nothing remarkable or beautiful about this intersection—it’s just more pavement in urban America.

And yet I was seeing it anew. Until coerced by the hypothetical legal consequence of the Hands-Free Law, I hadn’t stopped my traffic-signal phone-checks, even though I knew I was contributing to the rise in distracted driving. Texting or manipulating apps while the vehicle is in motion has always seemed like a sufficiently terrible idea to deter me. But while stopped at a light, fiddling with a message or firing off a clever tweet or checking in on the Slack notification heard a half-mile down the road or just switching the music playing through the auxiliary port—all these things didn’t seem so bad, and I kept doing them.

My guilt worsened when my kids started driving, making my own questionable habits feel even more conspicuous. Previous Georgia law prohibited teens from using electronics at all while behind the wheel, but my own behavior surely made that rule seem even more impossible to heed on their parts.

And years of casual smartphone use in idle cars made clear that it really wasn’t a safe practice. Looking up from the phone to see that a green light had gone unnoticed, I might have found myself accelerating hastily before really checking the road or the crosswalk ahead. Manipulating Spotify while the car idled easily bled into doing so while in motion.  

But a good deal of my own discomfort with my automotive smartphone use had nothing to do with driving safety. Instead, it was a general ennui with the overwhelming, annoying power the glass rectangle seemed to lord over me. It’s nothing unusual. The impulse to check your phone at a stoplight is no different than the impulse to check it in the Starbucks line, or on the toilet, or in the elevator, or during a lull in conversation.

Endless ink has been spilled moralizing the withdrawal into these digital cocoons. The sociologist Sherry Turkle worries that they isolate people from direct, human empathy. The technology critic Nicholas Carr fears they turn the brain to oatmeal. Both Apple and Google recently announced that their smartphone operating systems will soon offer tools to help control usage better—although critics wonder if those features just put the burden of action back on users.

But probably none of the billions who own a smartphone need critics wagging their fingers at us for these excesses. We know already. What we don’t know, yet, is how to behave differently.

The main purpose of HB 673 and similar laws is to get smartphones and other devices out of driver’s hands while they are behind the wheel. Earlier prohibitions on making cell phone calls and text messages aimed to keep drivers’ eyes on the road, instead of staring down at small, finicky gadgets. The solution was hands-free devices, like wired or wireless headsets.

Some studies (and Mythbusters episodes) suggest that hands-free texting by dictation produces no substantial reduction in distractedness behind the wheel. Even so, new laws, including Georgia’s, build upon the hands-free precedent. The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety in Georgia explains that drivers can use GPS, but they must program their destinations while parked. The same goes for music streaming apps, which must be set up before the car is in motion. Emails, texts, social-media posts, and other apps are prohibited.

The exception is that the driver can interface with those applications via voice-commands issued through a built-in hands-free system in the vehicle or an accessory headset. Drivers can’t reprogram Google Maps or choose a new Apple Music playlist at a stoplight, but they can convey such commands to Siri or Google Assistant. The idea that composing a Siri command would be less distracting than a quick tap or swipe while idle is befuddling. Getting a voice assistant to hear and understand a command is still dicey under the best of circumstances.

None of the ordinary citizens I talked to had any idea that the Georgia law went to such extremes. Most understood that they couldn’t hold their phones anymore and resolved to deploy some kind of dashboard mount. But they still assumed they’d be able to touch their phones upon those mounts. That’s how California handled the situation when it adopted a similar law in 2016: California Assembly Bill 1785 allows drivers to execute a “single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger” in order to “activate or deactivate a feature or function” of the device. The Georgia law is somewhat unclear on the matter, as is guidancefor drivers provided by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety in Georgia. The law might say a lot less than the clarifications, commentary, and coverage about it. Daniel J. Grossman, an Atlanta lawyer, says “It is the commentary that has created confusion, not the statute itself.”

One reason the law might perplex drivers is that operating a car has become a lot more like operating a smartphone. A 2009 model-year car I own features knobs to control the climate and buttons to operate the radio. My 2017 minivan, by contrast, just has a giant touch screen, on which different submenus must be selected to alter the cabin temperature, view navigation, or change radio channels. I asked the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety about the difference, from a safety perspective, between operating a manufacturer-provided dashboard touch screen and a dash-mounted smartphone. Robert Hydrick, the organization’s communications manager, wouldn’t speculate on the rationale behind the legislation but did affirm that “there is no law to my knowledge that prohibits drivers from touching or using any of their accessories provided by the manufacturer of their vehicle.”

Hydrick declined to comment on how Georgia police might enforce the law, given that it might be difficult to discern a touch on a phone from a touch on a dashboard. The Atlanta Police Department did not provide clarification about enforcement as of press time. A spokesperson from the Georgia State Patrol told me that it is “enforcing the Hands Free Law the same [as] we do all other traffic laws,” which doesn’t really elucidate the matter. But violation of the law carries a $50 fine and one point assessed against the license of the driver for the first conviction, and up to $150 and three points for three or more convictions within a two-year period. For many drivers, that disincentive might be enough to produce compliance, whether or not the law produces a long-term benefit to public safety, and even if some citizens don’t think it makes logical sense. That’s the thing about laws: They don’t need to appeal to citizen preference, the commercial marketplace, or even the scrutiny of reason.

I’ll admit that I’m a little embarrassed that my behavior is so easily and so immediately swayed by the rule of law. Like many adults with kids who own minivans, I’m hardly a renegade, but I’d also like to think I’m not so straightedge that a week-old law with an inconsistent rationale would be enough to totally alter an (admittedly bad) years-long habit. But since the law went into effect, my iPhone has stayed in my pocket when I’m behind the wheel.

Then I remembered my previous encounters with traffic law in Atlanta. Nothing too dramatic, just a couple tickets. But the only way to dispute these tickets is to do so in court, which is inconvenient at best, and impossible for many people. To maximize traffic-stop revenue, Atlanta even has a system whereby a first offense for a moving violation can be forgiven—for a steep fee.

My compliance didn’t arise from a deep respect for the law so much as a desperate urge to avoid the grey vampire of bureaucracy. The protracted nuisance of having to deal with the police officer, then the traffic court, and then the insurance company. For others, the matter might involve much more than malaise. Pretextual traffic stops, in which police pull someone over on the pretense of a minor infraction in order to investigate more serious wrongdoing, have long been criticized as a kind of legal racial profiling. Everyone has a smartphone, which makes anyone a possible target of further scrutiny on the road as smartphone-oriented laws become more common and more complex. When I asked if the Georgia State Patrol has any concerns about how the Hands Free Law might target specific populations, its representative insisted that “the premise for these stops are traffic safety and to reduce the number of fatalities on Georgia’s roadways.”

But whether used to exert fair or unfair power, there is also a strange comfort in bureaucracy. It offers a rationale that need not be efficient, equitable, or even sensical. No longer do people have to rely on their own willpower to stave off smartphone use—instead they can blame The Man for taking away their toys. In my case, just the hypothetical threat of being ticketed for touching my smartphone appears to be enough to get me to stop using it, cold turkey, at least in the car. It was an easy transition.

Georgia’s law represents a profoundly different strategy than what smartphone critics usually suggest. Appeals to minimize phone-checking typically amount to counter-terrorism techniques conducted against the designers of attention-grabbing devices and apps. The tech-mindfulness guru Tristan Harris has recommended turning your smartphone screen to grayscale to make it less compelling. Others suggest suppressing notifications, keeping phones off of nightstands, or using screentime-management features like the ones Apple and Google are rolling out. Deleting social apps is another popular tactic, along with scheduling time away from the device entirely—Sherry Turkle urges people to forego devices during the holidays.

But all of these techniques put the burden of rebuffing the smartphone on the individual user. They require considerable effort to go against the grain of typical use, and produce limited results. Overall, people remain mated to their devices. The grayscaler and the time-manager are outliers in the herd of normals.

Laws— good or bad—are able to upend the tyranny of individual choice and impose collective action from the outside. And bureaucracy helps bolster the efficacy of upstart laws by building a bulwark to protect their arbitrariness. (These features can also make legislative intervention dangerous, although the democratic process is meant to protect people from that oppression.)

When people talk about the civic impact of smartphones, or Facebook, or anything else, these tools tend to get portrayed as technological narcotics, devices and services so compelling that people can’t help but use them, even if it is not in their best interest to do so.

But it’s also too easy to romanticize life before the smartphone. Sitting there in my car at Piedmont and Monroe, staring at the gas station, I thought of the photographer Stephen Shore’s famous image of a Chevron at the corner of Beverly and La Brea in Los Angeles. Stripped from the urge to look at my phone, I briefly fancied that I was seeing the world close and in detail, like Shore did—like I once did, and might yet again.

But really, that’s just a fantasy. Eschewing my smartphone didn’t make me feel more present or less wicked. It didn’t inspire more conversation with the passengers in my vehicle. It might have made me a slightly safer driver, but it didn’t really make me a better person. What did people do at traffic lights before the iPhone? They sat there, zoned out, daydreamed, worried—often no more engaged with the world around them than today’s drivers. There was even a time when people worried about highway hypnosis, the tendency for smooth, uninterrupted freeways to lull drivers to their doom.

Smartphones aren’t really narcotics. They are just habits. People use them a lot. Too much, maybe, and sometimes in ways that they’d prefer not to. If we really do want to change that behavior, those shifts need to be institutionalized at very large scales, not via app tweaks or mindfulness exercises. If smartphones are indeed a social concern, bureaucracy offers one way to break the back of their compulsion.