Cellphones, antennas, towers… radiation happens

cellphone antenna pole in Wimsheim, Germany
Image via Wikipedia

Radiation from the A-bomb test witnessed by my then-Marine husband in the early 1950s was registered on a small badge worn around his neck. They double-timed from foxholes toward the site of the blast. As far as we and the U.S. government know, all of those guys went on to lead long and healthy lives — and we went on to deadlier bombs anyway. We do now know a little more about those sorts of radiation damage.

We don’t know much about the tiny emissions from cellphones, iPhones, cellular antennas, texters, Skypers, whatever. The suggestion that any of those cyber-issues could possibly cause harm draws scoffs and derision and denials, but the truth is we simply don’t know. Some folks would still like to find out; maybe even find out before harm is done rather than after. An ongoing mini-battle in San Francisco is typical of such citizen struggles everywhere:

The increasing popularity of smart phones is pitting companies looking to expand their coverage against city residents concerned about the dangers presented by a growing number of cellular antennas.

Nearly every week, the city Planning Commission hears from a company looking to add to the thousands of cellular antennas already in the city. And, like clockwork, local residents turn out to fight the plans.

“These towers should be away from residences, away from schools and away from other vulnerable populations,” said Doug Loranger, who, as founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, has been fighting the cellular companies for a decade.

That’s not easy to do in a city as densely packed as San Francisco, where hills and tall buildings have long made radio transmission a challenge.

The crowds that jammed local stores looking to buy the new Apple iPhones last month demonstrate another part of the problem. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, and the people buying the various new smart phones want fast and easy access to the Internet on their handheld devices, which means more demand for service.

This demand for service drives the rush to install more antennas and modify the existing ones. As long as they meet emission standards set in 1996, they are deemed fine, and cannot be challenged on the basis of health, a frustrating reality for potential challengers. Because that actually is the issue: whether — or at what point — emissions can indeed become damaging to one’s health. And though radiofrequency radiation emitted by the antennas has not been proven to have any damaging effects, activist Beverly Choe, whose children attend school near one such installation says, “it doesn’t seem prudent to add more radiation until we’re sure of the effects.”

“People want service where they live, where they work and where they play,” said Rod De La Rosa, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “We’re trying to roll out more high-speed data transmission by increasing the size of the pipe and not just for voice.”

T-Mobile is just one of the service providers looking to boost their presence in San Francisco. Just last week, Clearwire, a new company providing wireless data service only, came to the Planning Commission with requests to add antennas to existing sites in Bernal Heights and by San Francisco General Hospital.

“Starting last year, we’ve had a big increase in requests for modifications (of existing sites) and for new antennas,” said Jonas Ionin, who oversees cellular antenna requests for the city’s Planning Commission. “What we’re finding today is that the increases aren’t necessarily based on voice traffic, but on data downloads.”

The city already is home to 709 cell sites, some with as many as 12 separate antennas. Although many of the recent requests have been for upgrades and additions to those existing sites, there is also a growing call for new spots for cellular antennas, which means more battles to come.

Those continuing battles have one interesting aspect that other battles can’t always claim. No one is waiting to find out who’s right. “The funny thing is that people call me on their cell phones to complain about the new installations,” said Diego Sanchez, a city planner. We may all be addle-brained from telecommunicating before we find out where it’s coming from. A lot of us grew up in asbestos-infused schools and homes, and we’re probably all eating mercury-infused seafood (not to mention drinking petroleum-infused water); life is hazardous to one’s health.

Tension over cellular antennas mounts in city.

Girl drivers more aggressive than boys – and texting, loud music now the norm

My 19-year-old granddaughter, who totaled her car a few months ago, swears she wasn’t texting at the time. Well… maybe the music was playing a little loud. She was unhurt, didn’t hit anyone else or damage anything other than her late lamented car, so there are a lot of blessings to count. But does she text occasionally? “Everybody does.” And in general, besides the decibel level, and the phone which is an extension of her left hand, a shrinking violet she is not. I hasten to say this is a young woman I greatly love and admire; she may also be typical of today’s teenage girl drivers.

Some big auto insurers are raising the rates they charge to cover teenage girls, reflecting the crumbling of conventional wisdom that young women are more responsible behind the wheel.

In a survey of teenage drivers, Allstate Insurance Co. found that 48% of girls said they are likely to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. By comparison, 36% of the boys admitted to speeding. Of the girls, 16% characterized their own driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005. And just over half of the girls said they are likely to drive while talking on a phone or texting, compared to 38% of the boys.

The results were “a surprise to many people,” says Meghann Dowd of the Allstate Foundation, an independent charitable organization funded by Allstate which sponsored the survey.

While teens fessed up about their own bad behavior, they also said their friends drive even worse. The study found that 65% of the respondents, male and female, said they are confident in their own driving skills, but 77% said they had felt unsafe when another teen was driving. Only 23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers. This suggests teens recognize in their friends the dubious and dangerous behavior they won’t admit to indulging in themselves.

A few interesting findings of the new survey:

16% of girls describe their driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005.

84% of girls are likely to adjust music selection or volume while driving, versus only 69% of boys.

82% of teens report using cell phones while driving.

23%of teens admit they have felt unsafe with another teen’s driving.

23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers.

More teens (22%) consider parents in the car more distracting than having their friends in the car (14%).

OK, geezer drivers (this one is still working on the DriveSharp program we all hope is building neurons in my brain and helping me expand my useful field of view) are an admitted hazard on the road. But this new data about our grandchildren isn’t terribly encouraging either. It’s a scary road out there.

Girls Say They Speed, Drive Aggressively More than Boys – WSJ.com.

Can geezer drivers become better drivers?

This is the initial report from the field re geezer drivers and brain exercise. This space hereby goes on record as a believer. Just a minimal believer, but I — a certified geezer driver — actually think aging brains can become better-driving brains.

I recently downloaded, accessed, stored, signed in and completed whatever else one must do to begin the Posit Science DriveSharp program, an initial exercise in brain sharpening for computer Luddites. There are other programs out there to sharpen the skills of geezer drivers, and plenty of computer-game exercises aimed at the same goal. Posit Science (I am not on their payroll) offered me their program without charge, and little by little I plan to get all the way through.

For now, I have only done some initial roaming around and a few of the exercises. But an interesting thing has happened. Much of this is about how, as one ages, one’s “useful field of view” diminshes. So one might see the stop sign but miss the car speeding around the corner to the left. (If that’s a texting driver, you’re toast.)

I don’t think I’ve improved my useful field of view. But on an extended driving trip with my husband and a friend — in his wife’s fancy Lexus — this past weekend, I was actually complimented on my skills (ever try the two-lane, pothole-filled miles over the mountains from Hwy 101 to California’s Lost Coast?) by the car’s owner who had retired to the back seat. I think just the awareness of what “useful field of view” means makes a difference. Plus, I think brain exercises, even if they’re just teasers (Teasers for Geezers, this could be a new hit) build awareness of the complex issues drivers can face.

Try thinking about that “useful field of view” business, taking a test or doing a few brain exercises before your next drive, and see if you notice any difference. If I can ever find some actual time to do so I will undertake a few hours of actual DriveSharp program and report back.

Meanwhile, hang up the phone, please, and watch out for texters and geezers behind the wheel.

Jail time for texting driver

At the risk of invoking the wrath of some readers who disagreed with my proposal to jail texting truck drivers a few weeks ago, I hereby applaud the British Crown Court for sending a texting young driver off to jail where, presumably, cell phones are unavailable. I am sad for her and her family, far sadder for the victim and her family and still angry that such stupidity is tolerated in the U.S.  Here’s the story from Oxford via the New York Times November 2:

Inside the imposing British Crown Court here, Phillipa Curtis, 22, and her parents cried as she was remanded for 21 months to a high-security women’s prison, for killing someone much like herself. The victim was Victoria McBryde, an up-and-coming university-trained fashion designer.

Ms. McBryde was killed when her car was struck while stopped beside the road.

Ms. Curtis had plowed her Peugeot into the rear end of Ms. McBryde’s neon yellow Fiat, which had broken down on the A40 Motorway, killing Ms. McBryde, 24, instantly. The crash might once have been written off as a tragic accident. Ms. Curtis’s alcohol level was zero. But her phone, which had flown onto the road and was handed to the police by a witness, told a story that — under new British sentencing guidelines — would send its owner to jail.

In the hour before the crash, she had exchanged nearly two dozen messages with at least five friends, most concerning her encounter with a celebrity singer she had served at the restaurant where she worked.

They are filled with the mangled spellings and abbreviations that typify the new lingua franca of the young. “LOL did you sing to her?” a friend asks. Ms. Curtis replies by typing in an expletive and adding, “I sang the wrong song.” A last incoming message, never opened, came in seconds before the accident.

With that as evidence, Ms. Curtis was sentenced in February under 2008 British government directives that regard prolonged texting as a serious aggravating factor in “death by dangerous driving” — just like drinking — and generally recommend four to seven years in prison.

There are no winners in this story, only losers and sadder losers. But there could be a small win if it served as a wake-up call anywhere about the fact that driving a car requires two hands and an engaged brain. It is not possible to engage the brain in watchful, decent driving when pieces of it are off somewhere in cyberspace. The only reason why there are not literally thousands of additional casualties every day from the callous stupidity of texting/cellphoning drivers is that other, saner drivers — and cautious pedestrians, who know they are at constant risk — have noticed and managed to avoid them. But texting/cellphoning drivers are outnumbering other, saner drivers at an increasingly alarming rate. They should face jail time.

Victoria McBryde had, herself, been texting her friends before her car broke down. From the side of the road she called her mother, Jennifer Ford, to say she was frightened and worried because the car service company had not appeared.

Ms. Ford told her daughter to make sure the flashers were on and that she was pulled off the road. “She was like, ‘Mom, of course I did these things,’ ” Ms. Ford recalled in an interview.

When she called her daughter back 20 minutes later, no one answered. By that time Victoria McBryde was dead.

Driven to Distraction – Britain Sets Tough New Laws for Texting While Driving – Series – NYTimes.com.

Texting as anti-social networking

A faithful reader of this space, among the several faithful readers enjoyed by this space, weighed in on the texting truck driver (see Sept. 27th below) to say I ought to write about the real problem: texting while conversing. Conversational texting may not be as lethal, except in terms of mortally wounded relationships, but it does indeed seem a growing threat to humankind.

We checked with several members of the Under Twenty generation (is there a generational designation for today’s teens and sub-teens?) who assure us they would never be guilty of such a thing but we’re not convinced they’re telling the whole truth. It is the Boomers and Beyonders, though, who have come late to this perpetual connectedness and pose the greater threat. Faithful Reader confessed to having a close personal relation whom she is about to disinherit because he will not stop surreptitiously, perpetually, rudely texting beneath the table while pretending to carry on a conversation. Or sometimes not even bothering to pretend.

In a former life I had a husband — I no longer have this particular husband — who was prone to walk into a room, immediately pick up the remote and click on whatever ball game happened to be in progress. Guests found this disconcerting; wife found it maddening. The message, similar to the message of incessant texting-while -supposedly-conversing is that something afar is infinitely more important than anything at hand.

If you are a reader of this space, you are surely too cultured and polite to commit inappropriate texting. But you are invited to e-mail it to any texting truckers or friends you may have, in the interest of general civility.

Jail time for texting drivers

The life you save may be your own… or possibly mine. Right now, to be honest about it, I am more interested in mine. And mine is regularly at risk from texting drivers.

Today’s front page story by Matt Richtel in the New York Times, with accompanying photo of large driver of large vehicle, small dog in his lap and intricate computer screen to the right of his steering wheel, raises more fear in me than local jihadidsts and prospective death panels. The latter are abstract &/or untrue, the former is real. And preventable. “We are supposed to pull over,” trucker Kurt Long says blithely, “but nobody does.” Richtel also quotes American Trucking Association spokesman Clayton Boyce as saying that truckers “… are not reading the screen every second.” Why is this somehow not comforting?

I concede that time is critical to drivers of large vehicles. But at some point the public good ought to prevail. Those of us over 60 are admittedly better able to remember when it was possible to live without texting (or even cell-phoning) while driving and thus better able to think it could be possible again, at least on a limited basis. We are also able to remember when it was convenient for some people to drive around very drunk and occasionally kill people, before laws were passed to limit that activity. Driving a big rig while texting may seem more important than driving blotto after a party, but the dead are just as dead. Somebody has got to get the attention of our legislators — somebody not indebted to the very powerful trucking industry lobby — so that new laws are enacted.

Walking, whenever time and public transportation permit, is my mobility of choice. On foot, I regularly notice the drivers who don’t notice me because they are too busy texting or talking on cell phones. Pedestrians learn to do this. But if you’re driving down the highway and a large vehicle is barreling toward you or near you, propelled by a minimally-attentive driver, you don’t stand a chance. And I say, send them to jail.

Beloved members of my immediate circle of family and friends have been known to text while driving. I still say, send them to jail. I’ll come visit.