The clothes and slippers on Wilshire Boulevard

I was sitting in a cafe on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica when, diagonally across the intersection, the firetrucks, police cars and ambulances pulled up from all sides, sirens ablaze.

Another accident, said a customer near me.

One of my children goes to a little school on Wilshire, not far.

Often, as I sit in this cafe, I look up from my book and just look at the drivers zipping by. About half of them, maybe more, seem to be on their phones as they propel their heavy metal killing machines through this human hive. It’s so booooring to have to drive. Must talk or text to pass the time.

Later I walked to the ATM, then home. The ambulances were gone now. Only some clothes and slippers and what looked like a pair of sunglasses were left in the intersection, now guarded by cops.

Why did they not clean it up? I don’t know. Evidence, perhaps. The paramedics had cut the clothes from the two bodies, the better to try to save the lives.

I learned that a driver, aged 28, had plowed through two people, a man aged 61 and a woman aged 62 — perhaps a couple — at a crosswalk. They were walking on the zebra stripes, and the driver simply did not stop.

Was he texting or on the phone? I asked the cop. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say.

Did that matter? I wondered. Perhaps only insofar as the answer might, just might, make others change their behavior (ie, put their phones away in the car) and save lives not yet lost or shattered.

More than two lives had just been lost or shattered right here, while I was drinking a double latte across the street. Not just the two whose clothes I was seeing. All the lives they had touched. I walked home to my kids.

The human brain while driving and …

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, until I had to advance from venting about the evils of distracted driving here on The Hannibal Blog to doing so in The Economist. So here it is. My rubric says it all:

Distracted driving is the new drunk driving.

The research and writing process had the usual frustrations (usual for The Economist, I mean): I talked to lots of people, read many tens of thousands of words of academic research, took more than 10,000 words of notes, and then…. reduced it all to 700 words.

Oh well. Out went a whole lot of nuance.

If you ask me to name the most interesting concept from the article, and about the whole topic, it is this:

The human brain cannot process communication (oral or written) with a person who is not physically present without drastically reallocating attention and thus compromising driving safety. This is a biological fact. All those who claim that they can call/text and drive are the modern equivalents of the people you might (if you’re older) recall bragging that “I can hold my liquor” before that started sounding ridiculous.

As Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist and a delightfully belligerent blogger, puts it:

Any communication with parties who are not immediately present is evolutionarily novel, and the human brain is likely to find it cognitively difficult to handle.

Steering a large metal weapon at lethal speeds through crowded surroundings, of course, is also “evolutionarily novel”. So we have a double whammy. Homo sapiens just didn’t do this stuff in the savannah.

And yes, this means that bluetooth (“hands-free”) does zero to reduce the risk.

Anyhoo, here is just a tiny sample of some of the research that, sadly, got little or no exposure in my article for lack of space:

Texting, dying and killing

Yes, I remain obsessed with proselytizing about the the mortal dangers of distracted driving.

(That mainly means driving while using a cell phone in any way at all).

Today, just in time for New Year’s Eve irresponsibility, AT&T has released this documentary.

Bravo. I hope the whole industry — and society — responds.

Powerful mental image: The text messages, partial or complete, that a driver was typing as he or she died or killed.

Where r



Our greatest tragedy

The human mind — our minds — cannot grasp relative risk. We cannot compare dangers and see them in proportion. Or rather, we constantly do compare them, and constantly get it completely wrong. This is our greatest tragedy.

We cannot overcome this tragedy because it is biological: The human mind (meaning, the nervous system in interaction with the endocrine system, which will be a new thread here anon) did not evolve to compare dangers. It evolved instead to respond effectively and immediately to the proverbial Saber-Toothed Tiger you see above — ie, to a few specific and spectacular dangers that presented themselves in the distant past of our species.

And what a pity, when all we need to do to make good decisions and policy is to do this back-of-the-envelope risk calculation:

 R(\theta,\delta(x)) = \int L(\theta,\delta(x)) f(x|\theta)\,dx

(I am kidding, of course. My point is that most of us cannot wrap our minds around the concept of risk, not to mention this equation, and therefore end up getting it wrong.)


So we get it wrong in ways big and small, disastrous and banal. Often the banal errors are the most disastrous ones.

A few anecdotal examples, chosen for their deceptive banality (with a few details altered or recombined to disguise or protect the individuals in them):


While driving alone to the airport, a teenage girl texts her friend that she is nervous because she is afraid of flying.


We’re at a Californian beach, applying top-notch sunscreen to our children, sunscreen that was shipped in by grandparents from Germany upon request because it is organic this and non-toxic that. But this particular sunscreen, being slightly easier to rub in, is marginally less non-toxic than one other alternative.

A friend therefore refuses our sunscreen, leaving her children completely unscreened, because of the risk of that residual toxicity.

After a fun beach outing, that friend cheerfully drives her children away, pulling out of the parking lot while talking on her cell phone.


The parents at a preschool in Los Angeles, wanting to make the child’s “birthday dream” come true (a school tradition), deliver a truck load of snow to the school. For a couple of days, as the stuff melts under the Californian sun, the kids get to build snowmen, throw snow balls and so on.

Some months later, the family sends out invitations to an unrelated event. The invitations are digital as opposed to printed, and arrive via email rather than through the mail.  This is because the family is “green”.


Sitting beside a tall and beautiful shelf which is not bracketed into a wall stud and which holds, among other things, a large flat-screen TV set, also not secured, a cosmopolitan individual in Los Angeles explains why she has chosen to avoid a particular travel destination for the time being.

The reason is the risk of a terrorist attack in that place.


I could go on, but (knowing my readers) I imagine that you are already too busy thinking of your own examples.

Let’s not make the list longer, but instead pause to analyze what we have, and to infer some general themes.

I have not, before choosing these banal examples, “done the numbers”. That is to say: I have not calculated the various risks these people confronted. Instead — and this is open to fine-tuning and correction — I appraised these relative risks the way you estimate how many marbles are in a jar.

Situation 1)

Statistically speaking, even with shoe-bombers in this world, flying is one of the safest things you can do. You are usually safer in a plane than in your own house (especially if that house is the one in Number 4.)

By contrast, driving is surprisingly dangerous, even when your attention is focused on the road. But:

Situation 2)

Here is that risk again: driving distracted. The other risk — toxins from our (organic, imported) sunscreen is infinitesimally small and may not exist at all.

In this case, the two risks are not connected at all, except in the mind of the person perceiving them: She expends mental energy on the non-existent risk, and blithely ignores the large risk.

She also — and this is one aspect of Our Greatest Tragedy — has no sense of irony about the situation.

Situation 3)

This situation does not involve any risks to the children or parents, but represents a collective misperception and another missed opportunity for ironic self-reflection.

The carbon footprint of delivering a truck load of snow to a lawn in southern California is to that of sending out paper invitations as the Eiffel Tower is to a baguette. (Go ahead and calculate your own carbon footprint.)

Situation 4)

Who’s not afraid of terrorism? It is the perfect Saber-Toothed Tiger. All we need to do is think of September 11th.

By contrast, how boring is it to talk about bolting furniture into wall studs in homes near the San Andreas fault?

Well, I believe we’ve got that one backwards again. I looked into this because I once interviewed all sorts of geologists and building engineers when researching a piece for The Economist. The big one is a matter of when, not whether. It is likely to be of magnitude 8.1, or about 1,000 times as strong as the biggest earthquake most Angelenos can remember, with the waves amplified in the soft-rocked Los Angeles basin like those in the water of a swimming pool.

What happens when the Big One ruptures depends on 1) the time of day, 2) the depth and location of the rupture and 3) pure chance. But securing water coolers, TV sets, knife holders and so forth (all of which would turn into lethal projectiles) could make the difference.



Why are we so atrociously bad at assessing danger? Maybe you can help me figure it out in the comments. Here are some observations:

1) Is the risk photogenic or familiar?

A Saber-Toothed Tiger is above all photogenic. It is frightening in a spectacular way. It taps into the neural patterns of our limbic system and mobilizes, hormonally, all our defenses.

Another example of a Saber-Toothed Tiger is the horrendous killing of a 12-year-old girl in California, Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her own home during a slumber party and later strangled. It shocked everybody who heard about it, and especially every parent. Californian voters quickly passed a sweeping new law, called “tough on crime”, with huge and unintended consequences.

By contrast, the best example of an un-photogenic and familiar threat, one that is not spectacular because it is commonplace, may be distracted driving. (And yes, I am indeed obsessed by this issue.)

It kills many Polly Klaases every year (about 6,000 people, ie twice as many as died on 9/11) and maims half a million, ie more than 80 times as many again.

But if a distracted driver runs through a Stop sign and over Polly Klaas who is riding her bike, the news report (if there is one at all) will not mobilize society into action. The event is too common, too familiar. It is not a Saber-Toothed Tiger.

So the laws against distracted driving will be lukewarm and ignored.

2) Over-confidence

One factor that seems to distort our risk perception is our perception of whether or not we are “in control”.

When flying, our control ends when we step onto the airplane. But when driving and texting, ‘I can handle it’. Others may run over and kill Polly Klaases but I can drive safely while texting, and I am important, so I must answer my friend’s text, asking ‘Wazzup?’

Well, I cannot. Because my species has brains that have not evolved for this situation. We all face the same cognitive limit.

3) The lack of irony

I already mentioned irony. I mourn its absence not just for aesthetic reasons. Irony actually seems to help us to readjust our relative risk assessments.

The humor seems to coincide with re-calculation, which then leads to insight: ‘I am being ridiculous. Let’s try this again.’

Shaming distracted drivers: A blog we need

They could kill my children.

That’s what I think when I’m driving or walking alone and dodging the drivers around me. Yesterday a lady drove at medium speed through a Stop sign and right through the intersection where I was jogging — or rather, where I stopped jogging and jumped out of her way. She was looking only left (I was on her right, other cars straight ahead). And, of course, she was talking on her cell phone — the modern way, by holding the iPhone away from the ear in Speakerphone mode.

The thought that they could kill my children makes me mad, swinging mad, fighting mad. I am a “liberal” (meaning libertarian). But their freedom stops when my children’s security is threatened.

Matt Richtel

Matt Richtel at The New York Times (who, incidentally, took over my teaching spot at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism when I left) has done a great public service by running a series of articles on the subject to raise awareness. I salute him. I want more of them. Give Matt an award.

But we also have to admit that it has not stopped. They are still texting and yapping about their important things (“like, ohmigawd, he was soooo creepy….”) while driving their killing machines past my children.

Dangerous misconceptions are spreading:

  • That “hands-free” (Bluetooth) technology makes any difference whatsoever (it does not)
  • That talking is OK, even if texting is not (it is not)
  • That others should not do it, even though I can control myself (I cannot.)

The reality is that merely talking on a phone in the car (“hands-free” or not) causes the same cognitive delay as drunk driving. Texting is several times worse.

A modest proposal

Eventually, they will pass laws, and those will be ineffective and late. (In the 70s, seat-belt laws were passed after spontaneous social change had already changed behavior. Politicians react to what voters believe already.)

So change must happen differently. How?

Through shame.

It’s a powerful emotion. We don’t like to be embarrassed, even in the face of complete strangers. They did studies (which I can’t find, so if you can, please share the link) that people wash their hands in a public toilet much more often when somebody else is there than when they are alone.

So, we must shame them. How?

I urge and plead with somebody who is reading this to start a blog devoted entirely to posting pictures and license plates of people yapping/texting while driving in flagrante.

Let them see themselves. Let them be googlable.

I promise my support.

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