Full On Winter

April 25, 2017


“It’s still full on winter up there,” warned Roger as he helped load the helicopter behind Alpine’s hangar in Golden last week, “dress warm.” He was absolutely right in his warning. While Golden, British Columbia, had shown signs of thawing and the ground was muddy in spots, high in the alpine, it was hard to find hints of Spring.


As many of you know for the past two decades I’ve taken a yearly break from practice to spend time ski touring in Canada, most often staying at a hut named Battle Abbey, located in the Battle Range,  directly south of Rogers Pass. [i]


We rely on helicopters to reach the hut as there is no road access even in summer. Once there we rely on our own leg-power to find ski terrain each day. We use synthetic skins affixed to the bottoms of our skis to provide traction so that we can climb up to alpine passes and vistas. We peel the skins off so that we can ski down the slopes. It’s a peculiar hobby and I’ve given up over the years of trying to explain to people why I find it so rejuvenating.


This year’s trip was much later in the year than usual. Where typically I go up in February or March; mid April is late. All of us were thinking it would be springtime with corn snow and warm sunny days. But Roger’s warning proved true. It was full on winter, a phrase that we all found we were repeating like a mantra as one storm after another deposited fresh snow during the week.


The most notable part of this year’s trip was having essentially two weeks offline. Years ago when we first started doing these trips, this was not something I was aware of. Back then email was still episodic dial-up connections with a squawking modem through the phone line. These days, between WiFi and phone, I’m never offline. So while discovering it was still wintertime at Battle Abbey, finding myself offline was perhaps a bigger environmental shift to deal with. It left me more acutely aware of the degree modern technology has shifted the way we live and in particular drawn our attention to the small screens on our portable devices.


I found myself shocked on the way back to Denver to see people texting on their phones while driving, particularly in Montana where the posted speed limit is 80 mph. Seeing this afresh made me wonder, “Why is it that we call them smart phones?” What we do with them is anything but smart. How did we get so dumb?


Look at the current statistics:


The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.[ii] Nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving. [iii] 1 out of every 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving. [iv] Texting while driving is 6x more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.


The Denver Post reported in early April that distracted driving accounts for 40 car crashes per day in Colorado. [v]


Cell phone addiction is now a phenomenon studied about and reported in the medical journals.[6][vi] It appears that most of us now have a cell-habit to one degree or another. Cell phone addiction may be responsible for as many fatalities as opioid addiction or gun violence. How peculiar that we seem to be so disinterested in doing anything about it.



battle abbey 2015-bluesky


Rummaging on my computer for any information saved about cell phone use, reveals that in both 2009 and 2014 I wrote newsletters about the danger of driving while using a cell phone. The 2009 one never made it onto our website so is copied below. The 2014 one is posted here: http://denvernaturopathic.com/Distracted-Drivers.htm






The original cell phone newsletter: Digitus Impudicus: 2009

It wasn’t until the woman driving the Range Rover in the next lane raised her digitus impudicus that I realized I had been glaring at her. It was on the way to work this morning, driving south on Monaco Parkway; we were driving side by side while she read her email using an iPhone. Any other day I might have admired her talent but today’s feature article in the New York Times was on my mind. The article, a full three columns on the front page, revealed how from the start those engineers who developed car phones knew they were going to be a hazard.   One early developer, Martin Cooper suggested locking the dials while driving. This was back in the early 1960s.

By 2007 the government estimated that 11% of drivers were talking on their phones at any given time. Harvard researchers estimate that during 2002, drivers using cell phones caused 2,600 fatal crashes and 570,000 accidents. It’s unlikely that any of these statistics have improved. More people are using phones and with texting and other new uses for these phones, accidents have most likely increased.

It was these numbers that I was trying to fathom as I watched this young woman adeptly use her index finger to scroll down the screen on the phone as she pinned it to the steering wheel with the other hand.

Large number of fatalities invariably get translated in my mind into multiples of the 9/11 deaths. For example the yearly mortality in the US due to lung cancer is equivalent to 108 twin towers lined up and falling like dominoes.   Cell phones now account for a pair of towers collapsing annually.

Thinking of those towers as we paralleled our way down the road, I probably wasn’t smiling. I was wondering why we make such a fuss over terrorists and barely notice these insidious causes of death. What’s the difference? Terrorists kill us for political and religious reasons. Businesses can ignore the fact that they kill us because they make a profit. The later is ok and the former isn’t? A 166,000 people die from lung cancer every year, almost all a direct result of smoking cigarettes, and it no longer makes the news. At least with cigarettes we can pretend there was a time when we didn’t know they were dangerous.

But cell phones? No one pretended that talking on the phone would make cars safer. One needn’t be a rocket scientist or a Bell Laboratory engineer to realize they would increase the risks of driving. Using hands free phones are still risky but handheld phones are four times as dangerous. While she read and responded to email on a tiny touch screen, I don’t want to guess how much this woman increased our collective risk of having a bad day, a really bad day.

Why do we tolerate these pernicious incursions on our health and safety?   Our patients come to us worried about how much vitamin E they should take, whether coconuts are healthy for them and other relatively trivial questions. Using a cell phone while driving is more likely to kill them than bisphenol-A or any of a dozen other things we put so much effort into protecting them from. Some days we might do everyone more good by becoming public advocates, making it harder to smoke and making it difficult to talk and drive. We could count the lives we save by the thousands.

Why is it so easy to look the other way? There was a brief flurry a few years back of bumper stickers that read, “Hang up and Drive.” The sentiment never took hold, perhaps because phone receivers no longer exist. The generation that needs to hear the message most has never ‘hung up’ a telephone.

I called a colleague last week at a time we’d prearranged. I caught her in the car ferrying her kids somewhere. I can’t name anyone I know who shuts off their phone when they get in the car. These are people who would go hungry rather than eat trans-fatty acids. There’s a disconnect here.

It is time to shift public perception. Talking on the phone in the car is no longer ok. It’s no longer multi-tasking, it’s no longer being efficient and productive. It’s being stupid. It’s sociably unacceptable, or at least it should be. As doctors we have a responsibility to teach our patients. Let’s teach this lesson by example and shut off our phones while we drive.

The New York Times article, “Promoting the Car Phone, Despite Risks”:






Current references and links:

[i] http://www.battleabbey.ca/

[ii] http://www.nsc.org/learn/NSC-Initiatives/Pages/distracted-driving-problem-of-cell-phone-distracted-driving.aspx

[iii] https://www.edgarsnyder.com/car-accident/cause-of-accident/cell-phone/cell-phone-statistics.html

[iv] https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/

[v] http://www.denverpost.com/2017/04/04/distracted-driving-caused-40-crashes-each-day-in-colorado-last-year-and-cdot-wants-it-to-stop/

[vi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5076301/