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April, 2010:

Why is no one talking about the benefits of using cell phones while driving?

cell phoneLast year I was lost in Washington DC. It was late at night, I had just arrived in the city and I needed to make my way to a friend’s house in Virginia. Trouble was, my GPS device decided to stop working.  This was particularly problematic because the only place I had the address stored was on the GPS device.

I didn’t have a map. I didn’t have the address. And I didn’t even remember the street name. The one thing I did have was my cell phone.

I was able to call my friend and have him walk me through how to get to his house. This was no easy task, as anyone who has navigated through the labyrinthine highway system around the Pentagon can tell you. But fortunately because of modern technology he was able to guide me in, much in the same way my GPS would have done. To me, this was a lifesaver.

Cell phone ban advocates don’t think I should have been allowed to do this. They argue that it is always better to pull over and take a call on the side of the road. I suppose I could have done that. I could have taken down notes on the twenty or so turns I had to make to get to my destination. However, I suspect that trying to decipher my own writing while navigating the suburban VA highway system would have been rather dangerous—as would have pulling over on the side of the freeway after every few turns to get updated directions or trying to read a map.

In reality, having someone calmly give me turn-by-turn directions over the cell phone was probably the safest way for me to get to my destination that night. After all, it allowed me to keep my eyes on the road.

This is but one example of how talking on a cell phone while driving can be beneficial. Of course there are millions of others. Some eleven percent of people behind the wheel at any given point are talking on a phone, according to NHTSA estimates.  Those calls—whether they are to order a pizza, catch up with a friend or close a business deal—have some value. A 2002 study by Harvard University estimated that value to be as high as $43 billion per year. The same study concluded that banning cell phones did not outweigh the costs.

It seems to me that point—or any level-headed discussion of the costs and benefits of banning cell phones—is being left out of the debate in the race to ban cell phones in the name of public safety. That is a shame.

They give out Pulitzer Prizes for this? [distracted driving]

Earlier this week the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded.  The New York Times and Matt Richtel took home the National Reporting prize for their Distracted Driving series which openly campaign for banning the use of cell phones in cars.

This particular series relies almost exclusively on tragic anecdotes and technophobic scaremongering.  The data presented in the series  supporting banning cell phones  are based largely on eye-ball tracking studies and simulators—not real-world field tests.

Richtel and the Times did not hesitate to make very alarming claims like that using a cell phone is more dangerous than drunk driving, but they never once discussed the fact that despite the proliferation of cell phones, our roads are safer than ever before. Not only are fewer people dying in car crashes, we are getting in fewer collisions per 100,000 miles driven as well. Of course while the Times gave front page treatment to stories about the dangers of cell phones but relegated the news about declining fatality rates to a blog post.

The series was also unabashed in calling for legislative action to ban the use of all cell phones—even hands-free sets—from cars. But never bothered to discuss the costs and benefits of such a ban.

They even wrote sensationalist stories about the need to ban billboards and EMS and Fire Truck communication equipment on the basis that they might be distracting.

Let me repeat that, the Pulitzer Prizing-winning series on Distracted Driving not only never addressed the costs and benefits of banning cell phones, but it also suggested that we should restrict the lifesaving communications equipment inside ambulances and fire trucks on the grounds it might be distracting to professional EMS drivers.

This is the series that defeated an in-depth look at the shady dealings of Goldman Sachs for the Pulitzer.

In its own write-up of the award, the Times brags that the series has led more than 200 state legislatures and municipal governments to introduce cell-phone ban legislation.  I guess it is fitting that a series devoid of level-headed analysis is driving government action. After all, the prize’s namesake, Joseph Pulitzer, is credited along with William Randolph Heart with developing Yellow Journalism.

KFC’s “Buckets for the Cure” ad [video]

KFC has released their first Buckets for the Cure ad. I tend to think they should have played up the “Why Race for the Cure when you can Eat for Cure?” angle, but oh well. The ad is still pretty good—and a bucket of KFC Original Recipe chicken is as delicious as ever.

In praise of the IRS

Internal Revenue ServiceNow is the time of year that everyone loves to complain about taxes and the Internal Revenue Service. I just finished doing my taxes for the first time (previously I’ve had an account handle it), and I must say it was a fairly pleasant experience.

In addition to my Federal taxes, I had to file returns in two states. I also had to report a fair amount of independent contractor and sole proprietor income as well as some expenses. So the process was a bit more complicated than the typical 1040-EZ.

To handle the task I used Turbo Tax, which was fairly effective. I only encountered problems when it found a few errors but offered no insight as to how to decipher the tax jargon in question. So it is unclear if those problems got fixed. But all in all, it was solid software. The user interface was great and they give you on the spot feedback as to how new information impacts your tax return. I was happy to give them some money for the service.

But the real pleasure in the whole tax process came when I had to call the IRS. Apparently there is some pin number you’re supposed to save every year if you want to file your taxes electronically. Well, being an American, there is no way I am ever going to save a scrap of paper for a year (this isn’t the Soviet Union, we don’t carry around our “papers”). The only most Americans keep track of their drivers licences is because bars often ask for them. So the long and short of this story is that I found my self calling the IRS for help.

There was no wait time, no annoying music. They didn’t play ads for themselves like Comcast does. The fellow I spoke to was quick, efficient and helpful. He solved my problem in under two minutes. Calling the the IRS on April 14th was the best telephone customer service experience I have ever had.*

For two hours of paperwork and a five minute phone call, I’ll be getting about $400 back. Because of withholding, taxes don’t only seem fair, they seem like a genuine windfall! Thanks Milton Freedman.

*The second best was when I had to call the Economist about a subscription issue. But that was only delightful because of how shockingly unprofessional their customer support was and because the fellow I spoke with referred to his colleagues at the Economist as “Comrade.”

Credit Cards making gains in Britian

They may have minimum-purchase requirements and credit-card surcharges, but the use of credit and debit cards is still spreading in the United Kingdom. It seems that even the most punitive, anti-consumer measures cant stop the spread of something as convenient as paying with plastic. According to an article from the Guardian, cash and coins will be used in less than half of all transactions in the UK withing five years. It is certainly progress. Now all they need to do is get rid of those Pound coins and make all their banknotes the same size.

[via Chart Porn]

Arguments for banning cell phones in cars

I spend a lot of time poking fun at the New York Times and other ‘safety experts’ who want to banish cell phones from cars, so I thought it only fair to take some time to listen to some of their arguments. To kick things off, here is a recent public service ad from the Highway Department of Victoria, Australia.

[via How We Drive]

Fighting Breast Cancer with Fried Chicken

It has been a little KFC heavy here for the last week, but that is only because the Colonel has been innovating and marketing like a mad man.

First it was the announcement that the Double Down Sandwich is real, and as of today is available at a KFC near you. Then they released an awesome Double Down Sandwich ad. And now comes news that KFC is teaming up with the Susan G. Koman foundation to fight breast cancer by, you guessed it, selling buckets of fried chicken.

Starting today, KFC will be selling special pink buckets of its signature fried chicken as part of its new “Buckets for the Cure” campaign. The Colonel will be donated 50 cents to breast cancer research for every bucket purchased. The stated goal is to “make the single largest donation to fight breast cancer ever.”

I have two thoughts on this:

1: Only in America could we transform something as gluttonous as ordering fried chicken by the BUCKET into an act of charity. Well done Madison Ave!

2: Now that eating for the cure is an option, I’m pretty sure no one is going to be Racing for the Cure anymore.

KFC Double Down Sandwich ad [video]

We only have to wait one more day until the Double Down Sandwich is launched. Here is the latest ad to get you excited.

European airline brings pay toilets to the skies

ryanairYou’d think that making distressed tourists pay to use  the bathrooms of museums and public parks would be enough for European businesses. But that is apparently not the case, as Irish discount carrier Ryanair now plans to bring pay-toilets to the skies.

The Curious Capitalist has the details:

…Ryanair, the king of cheapo European carriers, was already working on exactly that. The carrier actually plans to install pay toilets on its short-haul flights. Apparently Ryanair believes that you should be able to hold it in for hour, and if you can’t—better have a €1 coin handy.

For those of you not familiar with Ryanair, it is a feisty competitor that has torn the once highly-regulated intra-European air travel market to shreds by offering flights for ridiculously low prices. The tradeoff is that Ryanair ceo Michael O’Leary feels free to offer passengers as much abuse as he deems necessary to make a profit. Needless to say he does not give a, um, whit about passenger comfort if he gets you where you’re going for next to nothing.

That gets us to pay toilets. Since Ryanair is mostly short-haul, O’Leary figures all but the most urgent natural functions can be discouraged, which conceivably allows Ryanair to yank out a toilet or two and install seats that generate revenue. Whatever toilet seats do remain will generate revenue, too.

A typically-European way to make a buck. What if someone doesn’t have a Euro to spend on the bathroom? Is he going to get in trouble for going in his seat? This policy could result in some rather nasty mid-air disagreements between flight staff and customers who just have to go.

Thanks to the work of the Committee To End Pay Toilets in America, many American municipalities ban pay-toilets. Hopefully these bans will apply to U.S. airlines as well.

Jesus wants you to fill out your Census form [ads]

I’m not sure if this Census poster printed by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials is completely amazing or totally misses the mark. Needless to say, some Christian leaders–particularly those encouraging Latinos to boycott the Census–are not happy about it.

What do you think? Is this poster more or less amazing than putting Census ads in fortune cookies?

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