L. Neil Smith's
Number 283, August 8, 2004

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so
are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to
harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
—President George W. Bush, August 5, 2004

“Hang Up and Drive, or Don’t”
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

All right, picture this: Killer telephone numbers.

I'm not talking about easy-to-memorize digits here. Like, "Hey, man, that's a killer number." I'm not talking about that.

I'm talking about numbers that instantly kill you the moment you answer their calls.

Sounds ridiculous, right?

Well, of course it sounds ridiculous. That's because it is. But believe it or not, there are people who believe it. They live in Nigeria, where the BCC reports: "A rumour has spread rapidly in the commercial capital, Lagos, that if one answers calls from certain 'killer numbers' then one will die immediately."

V-mobile spokesman Emeka Oparah has assured Nigerians, "This is an absolute hoax... ignore it," but who knows how well his advice will sink in? Maybe it won't sink in at all. Myths die hard. After all, isn't it possible Oparah answered a call from a killer number, and now there's a bug in his brain telling him to call it a hoax?

You just never know.

That's the point of urban legends. True or false, they put a face on our fear of the unknown. They give us better-safe-than-sorry solutions to the things that confuse us from day to day.

America has a pretty rich tradition when it comes to technological innovation. I think it's fair to say that Nigeria does not. This might explain why they reacted so strangely to something as simple as phone numbers—it's a natural reaction, because technology is somewhat unnatural for them. But Americans aren't exactly immune to strange reactions, either. Not even when it comes to phones.

For example, just a few weeks ago, I heard a commercial on AM radio that began by listing stupid laws from various states across the country. I have to admit I liked it, for the most part. I'm no fan of laws. But then something happened about halfway through. It went into a spiel about one law that does make sense: A new rule that makes it illegal to drive in New Jersey while using a cell phone, unless with a hands-free headset. And who was this message brought to you by? Plantronics, of course. "The World Leader in Communication Headsets."

Now, obviously, this is a company that believes in its product line. That's good. I support that. And I can't say I fault them for saying, hey, if headsets are needed, why not buy ours? But imagine a new law requiring Ritalin for all kids under the age of 18, without exception. And imagine the makers of Ritalin applauding that law. I don't know, maybe it's me, but it all sounds pretty un-American.

Same goes for the recent drive towards mandatory headsets. Good products don't need to be forced down people's throats. They sell themselves.

Me? I'm not sold on headsets yet. In fact, in spite of the new rules, I don't even own one. My mom and dad think I'm nuts. They went out and bought headsets months ago. They jumped for joy when they heard about the law. My fiancée isn't on my side, either. She says I'm crazy for refusing to buy one. Well, I may be crazy, but that's not why I haven't got a headset. I've got my reasons. And I think I'm entitled to them.

First, there's the issue of comfort. One of the main reasons I don't own a hands-free headset is because, in my experience, hands-free is a nice way of saying uncomfortable-piece-of-crap.

Take the headset my mom uses. I tried it on once and hated it. The damn thing didn't fit in my ear, on my ear, or around my ear, and after exhausting all three options I finally gave up and slammed it against the dashboard. And this was when I was riding shotgun. I can only imagine how hard it must be to answer a call with that thing while driving. You run the risk of stabbing yourself in the brain with a dull piece of plastic every time somebody calls. (Perhaps that's my family's real agenda? After all, they're the ones who usually call me.)

And another thing: What are you supposed to do with your phone once you've got your headset on? Are you just supposed to hold it? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of keeping both hands on the wheel? I don't get it. Maybe you're supposed to keep the phone on your lap instead. But I don't know if I want to do that. We don't know the long-term effects of cell phones yet. I shouldn't have to choose between getting a ticket and getting cancer of the groin.

Look, there's a difference between Nigeria's fear of killer numbers and America's fear of cell phones. Numbers aren't dangerous. Driving can be. And when you're too busy talking to pay attention to driving, it's true you're a possible threat. But it's also unsafe to eat, change the station, and put on a headset. The common thread here isn't your cell phone. It's driver distraction. And no law—short of mandatory Ritalin—will cure us of our short attention spans.

Mandatory headsets are a source of false confidence. I'm not saying they're altogether useless. Some people will buy them because of the law and end up wishing they had them all along. That's a good thing, if it improves their driving ability. But wearing a headset because it's the law won't improve your concentration. Only concentrating harder will.

That's why I've got to hand it to the folks at V-mobile. They could've created a feature called Killer Number Block and tossed it in with Caller ID and Three-Way Calling. They could've made a fortune off Nigerian fears. Instead, they came out and dispelled a popular myth. It's interesting how Plantronics did the exact opposite. Maybe they don't believe in their product line after all.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column on politics and personal freedoms for "The Aquarian." His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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