Thursday, September 4, 2008

I am, by the way, over caffeinated.

Until this morning I was taking a secret pleasure in the informal No Cell Phones Allowed policy on my commuter bus. I say informal because there is no rule on the bus. In fact, the first few rows are politely asked not to use their cell phone on the bus because might distract the driver. But even then, there’s an understanding with the politely posted sign that this more about loud distractions to a person operating a heavy piece of machinery and not about silencing your right to chatter endlessly. It’s followed by an understanding that maybe you don’t really need to sit so close to the front anyway and that if you do need to yammer on maybe you could do it quietly since most of the commuters aboard are resting their eyes. Which, consequently, is that I love the most: the bus is silent because the 9-to-5ers have fallen asleep.

But even with that joy I think it would be out of hand to mandate a no cell phone policy on any form of transit. Not just because it is a pervasive way of life, but because the cell phone is great for emergencies. Any maybe it’s nobody’s business that I’m using mine. Apparently the New Jersey to New York bus feels otherwise, as it’s been known to pull over to the side of the road and publicly shame cell phone users:

“I’ve got all day, ma’am,” the driver announced into his microphone, with the bus idling, about half an hour from the Lincoln Tunnel. “I’ll wait till you’re done.”

Nearly 50 passengers heard the warning, which the driver said was aimed at “the woman seated behind me in the third row by the window.” The woman, embarrassed by the sudden attention, hurried to wrap up her phone conversation.

The New York Times reports that the service restricts calls for “emergency use only.” Seems like a vague term—how does the driver know what is and isn’t an emergency? And isn’t emergency an arbitrary term? If you’re trying to clear a misunderstanding about an overdue library book that was sent to collections it seems like an emergency to you (it’s your credit) but it probably seems like chatter to everyone else. What if you deal with emergencies calmly? If you are firm and in control when the school calls because your kid had a seizure, how will the drive know? Does an emergency require hysterics? Are there key phrases? May I have a handbook outlining the appropriate behavior, tone, vocabulary, and protocol for an emergency?

The company says its rule was enacted ten years ago as the result of complaints from drivers and passengers. They also report that one passenger was ejected for failing to adhere to the policy. But I wonder if drivers have better things to do, like merge an enormous vehicle in morning rush hour traffic. It seems more an issue of personal courtesy than safety here: the article also reports that some blowhard took it upon himself to enforce the rule, personally approaching each passenger that was using his or her cell phone. Presented with the raging wingnut, each passenger obliged.

These rules are nonsense. If I speak quietly and privately on my phone—and it can be done without bothering passengers, even in small spaces—and it annoys you, consider this: I’m annoyed by the way you smell, the way you chew your gum, and the fact that you sir, are taking up some of my personal space. And until I tell you what to do on the bus I’ll appreciate it if you do the same for me.

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