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Too much discussion at 80 mph

TAMPA — As soon as I hang up, I realize I've blown it.

It's 10 minutes before noon, and my vow to not use my cell phone while driving lasted all of three hours.

I'm traveling 73 mph south on Interstate 275.

Who am I kidding?

The only reason I lasted three hours is that I accidentally left my two phones at home. As soon as I retrieved them, I checked for missed calls.

I should have stopped this four years ago.

Standing on Ridge Road in New Port Richey, staring at the crumpled hood of my prized maroon Saturn SL, the first and only new car I'd ever purchased, I swore I would never again dial behind the wheel.

My nearly paid-off car was totaled. Luckily, no one was hurt.

I'd like to think I restrained myself after that crash. But I'm sure I was talking to my insurance agent from behind the wheel of a rental the next day.

I cover crashes all the time. I used to work in an office on U.S. 19, the Road of Death. I've spent hours at wreck scenes where sheet-draped bodies lie as I contemplate the senselessness.

Intellectually, I know that one wrong move could change my life or, worse, someone else's.

Yet, as recently as a year ago I ended a text message conversation with a friend like this: "Drivin' and textin."

At the time, I was headed down Interstate 75 from Tallahassee, doing maybe 75 to 80 mph. (I wouldn't know for sure, because I was busy staring at a 2-inch by 2-inch screen, trying to be pithy, one thumb-click at a time.)

Last week, I asked Marcel Just, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, why I can't stop.

He authored a study that showed driving-related brain activity declines 40 percent when drivers hear someone speak.

He suggested that part of my struggle is simple social obligation. If someone messages me, I feel I owe them an answer. "You don't want to be rude," Just said.

It's true. Some of the most considerate people I know seem almost incapable of putting the phone away.

One girlfriend all but disappears from dinner when her cell phone, placed prominently on the table top, buzzes. Though we may be engaged in intense conversation, away she goes, at least for a few clicks. (Let's not even talk about my fiance's iPhone.)

So, okay, polite can be rude.

But I've been thinking that maybe another part of the problem is we've forgotten the art of being alone.

Today, alone in my car, I remembered something I wanted to share. It might have waited and would have made fine dinner conversation. But as soon as I stopped at a light, I picked up the phone and started to click.

The guy behind me honked. I jumped and tossed the phone on the floor.

For the rest of the drive, I listened to myself think.

And here's what I thought:

The silence isn't so bad.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Too much discussion at 80 mph 10/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 4:18pm]
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