- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

Cell phones are like vodka martinis. They can be a lot of fun but they also can impair your judgment.

A good example is offered by the pregnant D.C. woman who recently was arrested in one of the city’s Metro rapid transit stations for talking too loudly on her cell phone.

Sakinah Aaron, 23, was leaving the station, chattering away on her cell phone, when Officer George Saoutis of the Metro Transit Police told her to lower her voice.

Miss Aaron, a Food and Drug Administration clerk, responded, “You can’t tell me how loud I can talk,” The Washington Post reported. If so, that was her first mistake. It’s not wise to be rude to a uniformed person who has the power to arrest you. Besides, as any Washingtonian can tell you, the Metro Transit police have a reputation for telling people all manner of things they can or cannot do.

Metro police arrested a 45-year-old woman in July for chewing a PayDay candy bar. They arrested a 12-year-old girl in 2000 for eating a french fry. They famously arrested Fawn Hall of Iran-Contra scandal fame way back in 1987 for eating a banana, a case that, according to local lore, is on a peel.

Stories like this amplify John F. Kennedy’s description of the District as having “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”

Against that backdrop, I was not surprised that a loud cell phone user finally has felt the wrath of this obsessively quiet town’s Metro police. Let’s face it, the way some people talk on their cell phones is a crime.

It can also be dangerous. In one tragic example, witnesses said a woman was so absorbed in her cell phone conversation while crossing a Reston, Va., street last month, she was killed by a garbage truck. The driver was not charged. Police said speed and alcohol were not factors. Just a cell phone.

People, be careful. Don’t be like that poor unfortunate woman. Put down your cell phones and pay attention to what you’re doing.

New York, New Jersey and D.C. have banned use of hand-held cell phones while driving. But a 2001 University of Utah study found drivers responded late or not at all in braking for a red light and there was no difference in the response time, whether a hand-held or hands-free phone was used.

More research is needed, but I believe what that Utah study implies: People lose themselves in conversations over a cell phone in ways that almost never occur in face-to-face talking.

For example, we can quickly become unaware how loudly we’re talking. This happens a lot on the express Amtrak passenger trains in the East Coast power corridor.

My fellow passengers and I were entertained on one such trip from Washington to New York by the details of somebody’s messy divorce shouted out by a lawyer on his cell phone. I wondered how the parties to this untidy affair would have felt if they knew their lives were being splayed open like beef in a slaughter house to the unwilling ears of strangers on a train.

I am obviously not alone in my annoyance with people who shout obscenities and other intimacies of their lives into their cell phones for all the world to hear.

As I boarded an Amtrak train in Philadelphia another day, the conductor announced a then-new experiment called the “quiet car”: No cell phones, loud talking or electronic entertainment devices without headphones. I was almost knocked down by the stampede of members of the executive classes trying to get to the quiet car, where they could escape hearing the details of other people’s sex lives and business deals.

More recently, we have the sight of an increasing number of people on the street who appear to be talking to themselves. A closer look reveals why: These new self-talkers are talking hands-free on their cell phones. It’s not just for driving anymore. It is now for walking down the street or pacing the sidewalk, talking and gesturing wildly like what my mother used to call, in less politically correct times, a “crazy person.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my cell phone. I’m already forgetting how we ever got along without them. But, please, folks, when someone asks you to lower your voice, the world does not want to hear about your rights. We only want to hear the sound of your silence.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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