NEWS FLASH: We're driving around like lunatics. According to a recent MSNBC poll, Americans multitask over 70 percent of the time. (In fact, as I type this, I'm also enjoying a fine ham sandwich, doing yoga, and listening to NPR for more useless statistics.) To make matters worse, we're doin' it in the road. Last month, USA Today reported an AAA study finding that 25 percent of the six million automobile crashes each year are caused by drivers distracted by—Hey, stay in your lane, Beavis!—sorry, other activities.
The same study found that three out of four drivers admit to being distracted behind the wheel. A shocking 29 percent confess to driving with their thighs while using their hands for other activities (like eating, drinking, juggling, and whacking off to pornography on their laptops). Throw in the use of a cell phone—used by 44 percent of drivers—and we're three times more likely to miss critical events on the road—critical events as in stalled cars, herds of elk, pedestrians, stop signs, shit like that.
Moreover, according to a University of Utah study recently cited by the Los Angeles Times, cell phones are as dangerous to motorists as driving while drunk. (Though how the hell would those puritanical Mormons know that?)
And it's not just phones that take drivers' eyes off the dotted line. Cup holders throw scalding hot coffee into the equation. Many minivans carry a VCR in the backseat and video screens in sun visors, allowing us to view road movies on the road. (Can films projected on a "heads up" windshield display be far behind?) One model Ford Windstar actually has a washer/dryer, for gosh sakes! GPS systems are also cluttering the console, barking out directions, pulling up maps, and flashing city grids like dashboard fireworks. Cadillac's "Northstar System" has fax capabilities, e-mail, stock quotes, and headline news (with sports highlights soon to follow). The roads will never look the same—mainly because no one will be looking at them.
Fine with me. There are certain benefits to people blow-drying their hair, applying makeup, and brushing their teeth during the morning commute—your coworkers arrive looking much more attractive. It's also convenient: The other day on the West Seattle bridge, I leaned over to the car next to me to borrow some shaving cream.
COMBINING ERRANDS at a frantic pace, our busy society is now operating at an ever-increasing level of functionality, tackling several activities at once (a process known as "hyperwork"). No one knows exactly when this phenomenon began. It may have been when Moses parted the Red Sea while leading his people out of slavery—and dictating the entire event to his biblical biographer. Of equal modern magnitude, Swanson introduced the TV dinner 45 years ago. (Why it didn't earn the Nobel Prize is beyond me.) Once the tradition of the family meal was divided into convenient aluminum foil sections, all hell broke loose—people began knitting in church, wearing Walkmen in class, and talking during sex!
Today's practiced multitasker is thoroughly comfortable doing the crossword on I-5, working the air traffic control tower with one eye on Oprah, and programming a PalmPilot while performing brain surgery. (Other actions, however, have been proven deadly time and time again: Smoking in bed is a classic no-no, as is ironing and dancing, making love in hot tubs, and finger painting while operating a table saw.)
Multitasking both pervades and defines our culture. I recently attended an M's game where, between batters, rock 'n' roll music blared, the Moose fired balls into the bleachers from a giant slingshot, and a blimp dropped cash and prizes overhead. No less than 10 big-screen TVs beamed slo-mo highlights of other games in progress, announced Lotto numbers, and called for a doctor in the house for some guy choking on a hot dog in the seat next to me.
I was bored out of my mind.
Rather than slow down, I'm constantly trying to jam even more into my 17 daily waking hours: I floss while watering plants, channel surf during sex, cut my fingernails while cooking (many parts are edible), and hit the Stairmaster while simultaneously balancing my checkbook, yodeling, and listening to books on tape. I shower while fixing electrical appliances, play hackey sack on escalators, and prepare sushi while changing my motor oil. I read on the can. I play Nintendo while making candles and baby-sitting the neighbor's newborn. And my French horn practicing has never once interfered with my job opening and closing the Ballard Locks.
For those of you who can't keep up, who aren't operating a construction crane, drill press, or helicopter as well as reading at this very moment, I have only this suggestion: one simple thing at a time. Enjoy your gum first. Then take a walk.