Excerpt: 'Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity'

STEPHANIE FAUL Yes. Because that's what sells papers, of course. I mean, you're in the media. You know that if you get people excited about an issue, that's what makes it appealing as a topic.

Get out the shovel! This is circular logic: The report was based on media mentions of aggressive driving. We in the media loved the catchy phrase "road rage" so much, we kept doing stories on it.

Robert Lichter suggested it all got started this way: "People were yelling at each other in their cars and making obscene gestures and even getting out of the car for years. Journalists just found a term for it. So last year, you went home and said, 'Somebody yelled at me from his car.' This year, you go home and say, 'I was a victim of road rage.'"

Then the AAA writes a report based on the spurt of stories-and new headlines are born. Media incest!

Once the media had a catchy phrase for it, road rage became an "epidemic."

MYTH: Using your cell phone at the gas pump could cause an explosion. TRUTH: Don't tap dance either.

The media is alarmed:

cell fone fireball (New York Daily News)

buying gas? don't touch that phone! (Toronto Star)

The facts are more reassuring. Cell phones are a source of static electricity, and anything that supplies a spark-however minuscule-can ignite a fire if the spark is near fuel vapors. If you are pumping gas yourself, with a cell phone in your hand that rings at the wrong time, theoretically you might be in danger. But there is no evidence that cell phones are causing fires.

Still, the media keeps pumping out the stories. In 2004, the Poughkeepsie [N.Y.] Journal ran this headline:

cell phone ring starts fire at gas station

The story quoted the local fire chief, Pat Koch, as saying gas vapors were ignited by the ringing of a cell phone. But-hold the presses and get the shovel!-just days later, Koch changed his tune: "After further investigation . . . I have concluded that the source of ignition was from some source other than the cell phone . . . most likely static discharge from the motorist himself." To its credit, the Poughkeepsie Journal gave its follow-up story as much play as the original. The media rarely do that.

The University of Oklahoma actually has a "Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility," which researches the effects of electronic devices on our lives. The center examined incident reports and scientific data, and concluded that there was "virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations." The researchers went even further: "The historical evidence," it said, "does not support the need for further research."

Any static electricity, any spark-producing activity, is dangerous near vapors. So rubbing your rear end against a cloth car seat on a dry winter day is more risky than using your cell phone near the fumes. Don't dance near the pumps with metal taps on your shoes either!

MYTH: We have less free time.

TRUTH: We have more.

"We're fried by work, frazzled by the lack of time."-Newsweek, March 9, 1995. "Life couldn't get any busier."-The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), May 19, 2005. "Can your life get any busier?"-Saint Paul Pioneer Press, September 20, 2004. "Life is becoming busier for many Americans."-Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), May 28, 2000.

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