A close shave.

I told Alan not long ago, moments after we’d been nearly sideswiped, at freeway speeds, by a driver whose inattentiveness to the road was inversely proportional to her attentiveness to her phone call: “The miracle is that we don’t have six fatalities a day around here.” And the scariest thing about our near-miss? I don’t think the driver even knew it happened. She was too busy blah-blahing.

Yesterday I came as close as I ever have to becoming a smear on the road. Pedaling my bike down to the library, on the sort of semi-deserted suburban street that I love to ride on, I approached an intersection. I had the right-of-way. A minivan rolling down the side street seemed to be slowing. I went on across. The minivan kept rolling. I threw up my hand in the universal gesture known to Supremes fans everywhere: Stop stop for the love of God stop you idiot I’m so much smaller than you. The driver slammed on the brakes, and stopped a whole 24 inches from my right hip.

You know the punchline, don’t you? Cell phone.

I swear, I’m going to start packing a sawed-off shotgun, loaded with a peppery birdshot, maybe rock salt. Nothing lethal, just something to get their attention.

Well, I always suspected exercise would kill me someday.

OK, then.

Our old pal Adrianne called yesterday, who may be the last newspaper editor in America who’s having a good time at her job. Why? She works for a tabloid, in upstate New York. Tabs still know how to have fun. Big news up in her neck of the Hudson Valley these days — the death of Moses Teitelbaum, the rebbe of the Satmar Hassidim, a branch of which lives in Kiryas Joel, a little village in their circulation area.

“You have your unusual locals in the Amish,” she often tells me. “We have the Hassidim.”

Anyway, the death of an orthodox Jewish leader with devoted followers in two places creates its own news — there were services in New York, then a sprint up to KJ for a second funeral, at 3:30 a.m., so that he could be buried before sunrise in keeping with Jewish tradition. And there was traffic and charter buses and lawsuits, and, of course, the politicians. Gov. Pataki showed up to pay his respects.

“You should see our front page,” she said. “A picture of these kids in sidelocks lined up, and a headline: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO SHIVA?”

Tabs have all the fun.

I once saw some research, very cutting-edge for the time, that wired up a bunch of volunteers with these devices that would track, with some precision, where and how their eyes moved as they read the paper. The idea was to discover, without relying on personal reporting, exactly what things people read as they looked at their hometown daily. When the research was presented, each element on the page — from the 2D page number at the top to the credit lines on photos — had a number next to it, indicating the percentage of people whose eyes stopped long enough to indicate they might have actually read it.

One page had a left-rail digest of short items, marching all the way down the page. Each item had a number somewhere between 17 and 19 percent, except for two, which were up in the 40 percent range. The headline on one was something like “Sex charges filed against parolee” and the other, “Nude body found in field.” I think this indicates, with some authority, that if you want someone to read your work, slap a headline on it featuring the words “sex” or “nude.”

Note that I haven’t done it for this item, as all good webmasters know that doing so is like sending an engraved invitation asking for spam-bots to stop by. Some readers you don’t want.

But my point — and I do have one — is that headlines matter, whether it’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO SHIVA or NUDE SEX AT COUNCIL MEETING. And yet, when I was writing them, the question we most often asked one another was, “Is this offensive? Should we tone this down?”

OK, I’ll stop. Off for another bike ride. If I’m killed by a distracted, cell phone-yakking, minivan driver, I’d like this headline, please: CYCLIST STRANGLES DRIVER BEFORE DYING OF INJURIES.

Posted at 9:44 am in Media |

32 responses to “A close shave.”

  1. Kirk said on April 27, 2006 at 10:03 am

    Nance, I’m not big into gadgets (I don’t own a cell phone or understand why so many people feel compelled to talk on the phone at all times while they’re awake). But I would pay good money for a little deal that, aimed at someone yakking on a cell phone, would turn the signal into a high-pitched, painful screech. I know, it probably would cause even more of these oblivious morons to wreck, but it sure sounds like fun. Maybe if I promised to use it only in grocery stores.

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  2. John said on April 27, 2006 at 10:11 am


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  3. nancy said on April 27, 2006 at 10:12 am

    Well, I have one, and I’m very ambivalent about it. I rarely use even a third of my minutes in a month — and I’m on the bargain-basement allotment — but I will admit that when you need it, you really need it. It comes in handy at times I never anticipated it would. So I expect I’ll keep it.

    But I have the same thought when I see so many people on them, all the time. I mean: What the hell is everybody talking about? What can’t possibly wait until you get home? And grocery stores are the worst: You want broccoli or asparagus? OK, you want rice or potatoes? Cheerios or Apple Jacks? Now that everyone has a hands-free earpiece, I no longer assume the person talking to herself in the soda aisle is insane. I don’t care what Charlene said…It doesn’t matter…Do you know what she told me last week? That jammer would come in handy, I admit.

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  4. joodyb said on April 27, 2006 at 10:31 am

    I really like the shotgun idea, especially in your neighborhood!

    Charleen. Ha!

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  5. jcburns said on April 27, 2006 at 10:41 am

    So you’re saying they have some sort of..device…a…phone? That they use…while driving? I’m baffled by this technology you describe.

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  6. Dorothy said on April 27, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Used to be the minority of drivers were using cell phones – now I believe it’s the majority. It’s not even safe to walk my dog anymore without worrying about getting run over by cell phone-using-soccer-moms-in-vans in my subdivision.

    Do any of you know if the guy who ran into Stephen King a few years ago was yakking on the phone when he plowed into him?

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  7. Danny said on April 27, 2006 at 10:54 am

    My wife got my phone for free with the plan she has. It’s cool in that it flips up like the communicators on Star Trek, but as you hint, Nance, they should have developed phasers set to stun along with the cell phones.

    I use it once a week, at most. And I resist using it while driving. Too many years riding a motorcycle have me accustomed to giving the road my complete attention and too many miles on a bicycle have me irritated with the oblivious numbskulls who kill so many cyclists each year.

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  8. brian stouder said on April 27, 2006 at 11:31 am

    Would you believe me if I told you that the other day I was driving down the boulevard, both hands on the wheel and Pearl Jam on the speakers – at a moderate volume – and a bicyclist ran a stop sign and nearly clobbered me!

    I did the big swerve/heavy braking manuever – and the law-breaking distracted bicyclist did the same (thankfully the streets weren’t wet)….

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  9. Danny said on April 27, 2006 at 11:36 am

    Wow, Brian. I would say that that bicyclist is definitely in need of a more highly developed sense of self-preservation. By any chance was he/she listening to Pearl Jam on an mp3 player at high volume? Because then that would be understandable.

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  10. John said on April 27, 2006 at 11:55 am

    I know the Times Herald Record well, they overlapped with some of our coverage area when I worked for the NJ Herald. I really only bought the paper one day of the year barring major news events in our area.
    The THR was a MUST READ paper on the day before passover each year when the Hassidim would regularaly burn down like six homes and start dozens of brush fires when they would burn the wheat products in their homes to prepare for the holidays.
    Every fire company was on standby and their news staff worked like crazy to document the burning frenzy. An editor I worked with used to remark that it was the day Kiryas Joel burns down each year.

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  11. alex said on April 27, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    It’s true about those headlines:


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  12. John said on April 27, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Okay…here’s another one:


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  13. colleen said on April 27, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Totally with you on the “what’s everyone talking about?” thing. At the NAB this week….we’re taking a break outside the convention hall, and everyone is lined up against the wall, yammering on their cell phones. I had no one to call. My husband (also a broadcaster) and my boss are both at the convention, and they are about the only people I’d talk to via cell. And on the airplanes…yesh…as soon as people can turn their phones back on, they do, and start talking. You’d think they’d been holding their breath for the whole flight, with the urgency they have in getting those phones back on!

    Must admit, though, I did once get a call from my husband at the grocery where he asked “what’s a pork loin?”

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  14. Connie said on April 27, 2006 at 12:55 pm

    I too rarely use my cell phone minutes and try not to use it while driving. Mine came with a hands free head set, why aren’t these drivers using theirs?

    Back in my Ann Arbor grad school days I got hit while riding my bike, I had a green light, and the driver turned right on red. He knew he done wrong, and I wasn’t hurt.

    What’s a pork loin? Clearly he didn’t have a Dutch grandma teach him how to roast pork the old fashioned way like I did.

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  15. brian stouder said on April 27, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    “An editor I worked with used to remark that it was the day Kiryas Joel burns down each year.”

    When I saw Nance’s reference to Kiryas Joel, my first thought was ‘I wonder if that’s up the road from Curious George’ – and THEN I wondered if indeed I had missed the joke – and then I began to wonder if the folks who invented Curious George were making the joke.

    Strange about the annual fires – but then again every culture has its idiosyncracies, I suppose

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  16. Michael G said on April 27, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    Worst was when the lady in front of me dropped her phone (this was on the freeway). I lost ten years that day. I don’t use it when driving but I will confess to calling my wife from the grocery store. I do try to be discreet, moving to a corner and talking quietly, but I am guilty of using it in the store. Beats suffering the consequences of coming home without whatever it was. Also I travel a lot and don’t even bother with phone numbers and addresses etc of hotels anymore. We can just contact each other by cell and it works great when meeting at the airport.

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  17. Connie said on April 27, 2006 at 3:03 pm

    We just did a big in house campaign about turning off your cell phone when you come in the library. I mean, duh. It seems to be working too.

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  18. Carter said on April 27, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    If, as I continue to read, the occurrence of accidents is on the rise from distracted drivers, how soon will it be before the insurance companies raise the premiums of those with cellphones? (Or self-phones as I prefer to call them…) Or is that highly unlikely as some sort of phone-number-privacy- etiquette would be violated?

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  19. Dorothy said on April 27, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    The company I work for forbids use of cell phones while driving on company business. Not sure how strictly it is enforced, however.

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  20. MarkH said on April 27, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    Nancy and Kirk’s posts say it all for me.

    What is so damned important that can’t wait till you’re at home or somewhere else alone where you’re not inflicting yourself on others. Right after I first read this thread this morning, I went to our local post office. While I’m waiting in line, a man approaches, looking at me and starts talking. “Excuse me?”, I said to him, not hearing what he said. He just kept talking, looking me in the eye, yet not responding to my question. Of course, I didn’t see his cool little earpiece right away, and he didn’t think it appropriate to let me know he was talking to some other (invisible) entity.

    I need one for business, but use it as little as possible and almost never use it while driving. I do, however, make extensive use of its voicemail feature instead.

    “I have a cell phone, therefore, I must use it and be heard! Surely there’s SOMETHING I can say…Who can I call?” Sheesh…

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  21. alex said on April 27, 2006 at 8:20 pm

    How quickly we become inured to things like cell phone rudeness. I remember just a few years ago being embarrassed for a guy in a Chicago restaurant who was sitting alone and yammering away, louder than if he’d been face to face with someone across the table. My immediate impression was a) either he was all about being seen with his new toy, or b) absolutely so unself-aware he was fit for the booby hatch, which is to say c) same diff, get a friggin’ life, dude. Yet it has become so commonplace I’ve done it myself and not thought twice about it — until it has occurred to me how it probably looks to others.

    No, there’s really never a good reason to be on the phone unless you’re calling the cops or an ambulance, or you just happen to walk out of the house on hold like the guy in the Citi ads who says “Fluffy” and “Big Boy” and loses his signal in the subway when he finally gets through to a real live human being.

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  22. Linda said on April 27, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    I was on a day trip this week, and our bus driver was on his cell phone while driving on I-75 among all those trucks. He did it several times. Sounded like he was conducting some business. It did not make me feel safe.

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  23. nancy said on April 27, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    Well, I have used mine when driving, but I try to be smart about it. In fact, I have to be — I have a stick shift, and no headset, so it pretty much has to be in calm freeway traffic or not at all.

    But again, I’m amazed at how often I use it for things I never thought I’d use it for. Alan and I never would have been able to find one another in the RenCen the weekend before the Super Bowl without our phones. And when Alex and I were at the Gay/Lesbian Dinner Dance, it came in handy to find him when we got separated.

    And here I thought it was only for 911 calls.

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  24. Mindy said on April 28, 2006 at 6:37 am

    Back when cell phones were still unique to people who had too much money, a friend was at a stoplight on Coliseum Blvd. and happened to glance in her rearview mirror only to see a minivan approaching much too fast. She sat helplessly as the van smashed into the back of her car. The driver was a soccer mom yakking on her cell en route to taking three kids to a game. Only one of the kids was hers, very scary.

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  25. Dorothy said on April 28, 2006 at 8:47 am

    My point exactly about those soccer moms! (Hope your friend wasn’t hurt, Mindy. Don’t mean to make light of it.)

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  26. Jeff said on April 28, 2006 at 8:53 am

    Stephen King, who tells this story much better (duh) in “On Writing,” was hit by a now deceased fellow who was a sad story out of one of King’s own books — and don’t think it wasn’t on his mind as he lay writhing on the roadside.

    Better/worse than a cell phone: he was driving an old van, and had bought some fresh meat which was in a cooler sliding around in the back with his dog, who (cue Nance) was trying to get at it, and the driver was reaching back to grab the collar when he turned King’s leg into butcher meat.

    King later purchased the van in question and sold, to raise money for his area Little League, hits with a baseball bat on it, and finally personally pushed the button to crush it at a recycling yard. The man really lives his work.

    And i am no horror fan, or even much of a King reader, but “On Writing” is a really useful and fun read.

    Peace, Jeff

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  27. Kirk said on April 28, 2006 at 9:10 am

    i live in a neighborhood rife with soccer moms. they scare me more than any other class of drivers — cell phones, too much of a hurry, too many places to haul too many kids, etc., etc.

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  28. Connie said on April 28, 2006 at 9:24 am

    Speaking of Stephen King in his latest The Cell, only the people who use their cell phones go zombie crazy. Unfortunately as it starts most everyone else grabs their cell to call 911 and turn zombie crazy themselves.

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  29. mary said on April 28, 2006 at 10:34 am

    The classic move I see here is the giant SUV, operated by a woman talking on a cell phone, making a sudden U-Turn mid-block after dropping off her kid. The driver never looks either way, just makes a hard left, then four or five back and forths to get the behemoth-mobile going the other direction. I see it in front of my older son’s high school and at younger son’s middle school. It’s not even the same woman. It has to be a huge SUV, though, and the phone and oblivious attitude are identical.

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  30. alex said on April 28, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    And don’t forget the obligatory blond helmet hair, Mary. At least it’s that way around here in Hoosierland.

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  31. Kirk said on April 28, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    designer shades, too, in my neighborhood

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  32. mary said on April 28, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    It’s the same woman.

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