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Making meaning
  1. John Launer
  1. Dr John Launer, London Department of Postgraduate Medical Education, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DN, UK; jlauner{at}

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Here is the transcript of a remarkable conversation. It was captured on a police audiotape some years ago. It took place between a woman driver on Highway 85 in California, using her cell phone, and the switchboard controller at the police department. It resulted in someone’s death.

Controller: San Jose police…

Driver: Um yes, I wanted to report that there is a mattress in the middle of the freeway. Cars are dodging it left and right...

Controller: OK. You’ll have to call the highway patrol for that.

Driver: Why don’t you call them for me… or otherwise, I’ll just leave the mattress in the middle of the road! I mean, it’s Highway 85! Highway 85!

Controller: Is there a reason you’re so upset?

Driver: Well it took me forever to get through, and people are dodging this mattress and I just wanted to maybe…

Controller: OK. But what I’m telling you ma’am is that the San Jose police do not respond to the freeway. It’s the Highway Patrol’s jurisdiction. I’d be more than happy to give you the number if you’d like.

Driver: Never mind. I’ll just let someone get killed.

Some while after the phone call took place, a car hit the mattress, rolled over, and a person in the car was killed.

The transcript appears in a book about by the American communication expert W Barnett Pearce.1 As Pearce points out, the conversation is remarkable for being so ordinary. Both parties acted reasonably from their own points of view: the woman caller was unwilling to spend more time on the phone while driving, and the police controller knew that he had no authority to call out the highway patrol. There are identifiable moments …

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

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