Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not a ban, per se...

Last week Graz passed a new law--a ban on the use of cell phones on public transportation.

When stated so simply, as above, there are two immediate reactions: (1) "That's ridiculous! How can they possibly restrict people from talking in public places?!"; followed by (2) "Actually, the lack of irritating ringtones and annoying one-sided conversations would make the commute a bit more enjoyable..."

In fact, this new law--proudly ushered in by Graz mayor Siegfried Nagl--almost came into effect completely undetected. As I don't get a local newspaper, news channel, or otherwise have an ear to the local city politics, I rely largely on word-of-mouth and the headlines I see in passing for my local news. I'd heard nothing about it when I boarded the tram with a friend last week and noticed a round, retro-looking sticker next to the sliding doors; I did notice the sticker and thought to myself in passing, "Heh, it's not every day you see the pristine public transportation vandalized with stickers!" I didn't bother to read it as I was boarding, and I thought it must be the work of some mischievous high schoolers. Sitting in the tram with my back turned to flatscreen TV constantly scrolling with headlines and trivia, I chatted with my friend on the trip into town. At one point, her voice trailed off mid-sentence, her eyebrows furrowed, and she stared dumbfoundedly at the flatscreen. "What is it?" I asked her. "I'm not sure..." she answered hesitantly. "I didn't catch the whole story, but something about not being allowed to use cell phones on the tram anymore?..." We laughed it off and continued into town. On the way back home, I noticed that this tram too had an identical sticker in the same spot; what were the chances? This time I took a closer look, and I noticed that the sticker was actually calling for cell phones to be on silent mode in the busses and trams! (See photo, top.)

Still uncertain what was going down, it wasn't until the following morning that I got my hands on a newspaper and found an article about Graz's most recent law: effective immediately, cell phones have been banned from public transportation in Graz. But the most intriguing thing about this law is that it is purely for looks. There are no penalties. No fines. No enforcement of any kind. ...So what's the point?

According to the Graz city government, "Diese Maßnahme wird als Gebot und nicht als Verbot realisiert"--that is, "This action is being put into effect as a command rather than a ban." Just as the official wording tries to put a positive spin on the new law, so do the new cell phone regulations: Cell phones must be switched to silent mode while on public transportation and may not be used to conduct conversations; cell phones may, however, be used on silent mode for texting, surfing the internet, and other nonverbal functions. Bus and tram drivers as well as ticket controllers are urged to pay heed to the new laws and are given the official ok to confiscate the offending device and personally switch it to silent mode if necessary; in extreme cases, obstinate passengers can get kicked off the bus or tram. This being said, the big kicker is--THERE IS NO PENALTY! There is essentially nothing--NOTHING!--they can do if they [even bother to] catch you. They ask you to stop. That's it. No fine, no ticket, no nothing. And although ticket controllers (whom I've seen maybe 5 times in the 7 months I've been here) and drivers (who pretty much stick to their own space and don't tend to be very confrontational) technically have the authority to do something about it, most local residents are hedging their bets that they simply won't. This is a law that will not be regulated or enforced...and most residents seem to be taking it with the same degree of earnestness as the law itself exudes.

The aim of the new law is clear: to eliminate needless noise for a more peaceful ride on the public transportation. Having relied soley on public transportation for two years in New York, I can say that the Austrians are silent as the grave in comparison. Unless you travel at peak times--such as when schools let out, Friday and Saturday nights as all the young people are going out, or on the unfortunate occassion of a fan-filled hometown soccer game--you will find the public transportation to be eerily silent. So quiet, in fact, that I don't answer my cell phone on public transportation anyway, simply because even a whispered conversation could be uncomfortably overheard by many. Sure, you have your occassional passenger with no sense of decibel level or cell phone etiquette, but that is certainly the exception rather than the rule in this society.

So is this funny new law an attempt by Nagl to get into the good graces of the volume-sensitive masses in Graz? Having recently been reelected in January, it's hard to take one of his first actions as (newly reelected) mayor seriously. And judging by his own explanation, one has to wonder if he even takes himself seriously: ''I know I insulted the cell phone goddess a little,'' he quipped. "But people need to know they don't have the right to be on the telephone permanently and constantly. It's just not healthy to never be able to get any peace and quiet.''

At a recent gala where two politicians arrived late, the moderator, a Viennese actor, seized the opportunity to take a jab at the Styrian mayor: "We also tried to reach Mayor Siegfried Nagl all day on his cell phone--but in vain. I reckon he was in the tram!"

***For more on this subject, check out the Associated Press article in English here. Or, for an article in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, click here.


Sam said...

Brilliant post. One of the things I like about the Underground is that there's no mobile phone coverage.

Anne said...

this IS good, you are right! and quite amusing.
just a sidenote: i disagree that there are few people who don't know about cell phone etiquette- i am constantly amazed at the senseless conversations i overhear when people take calls- or should i say, took calls...
ps: hope you're fine over there!!!

Mike Johnson said...

I think it's "per se" in italics.

but it's been a long time since high school english, so don't quote me on that.

and you're bilingual, so you still get the gold star.