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What Call Is Worth a Life?

It's time to admit that hands-free is not a solution. It's time to ban phone driving.

By Dan Carney
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page A23

Phone driving is the drunken driving of the new millennium. Seemingly everyone does it, and all of them seem to believe that they are skilled in a way that prevents their powers of perception from being clouded by the fog of isolation that envelops drivers who talk on the phone.

Everyone who isn't on the phone while driving sees evidence of it every day, as drivers weave and stutter drunkenly through traffic while negotiating peace in the Middle East over the phone, or their kid's allowance, or some other question that, while too important to wait, doesn't merit pulling over to the side and parking for a few minutes to make the call. Those who are on the phone not only don't see others weaving in their lanes, they don't realize that they themselves are doing it.


(Douglas C. Pizac -- AP)

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Virginia is taking a step in the right direction with a bill to prohibit phone use by drivers younger than 18. State Sen. Bill Mims (R-Loudoun) and Del. Joe May (R-Loudoun) recognize that teen drivers have a hard enough time staying out of trouble without the distraction of telephone conversation. But the truth is that adults are affected in much the same way: Talking on a cell phone while driving makes them as likely to be involved in a crash as if they were drunk.

Here's the warning from Steve Largent, an NFL Hall of Famer and now president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. "You may need to save your calls until you reach your destination, or at least pull into a safe place such as a parking lot to make your call," Largent told cell phone users in a Memorial Day weekend alert. Top item on the CTIA's checklist? "Keep the call short."

And that's from the cell phone industry's lobbyists.

Driving while talking on the phone should be illegal for everyone, not just teenagers. The Virginia bill is a good first step because it puts the topic of banning cell phone use on the public agenda. But it doesn't go far enough. Virginia's General Assembly needs to pass the bill this year and then start working on another to prohibit phone use by all drivers.

Some people have the mistaken belief that only handheld phones pose a threat. We've all seen the drivers who intently study the screen and carefully dial numbers when they should be looking at the road. But the real hazard posed by phone driving is mental, not physical, so hands-free phones don't help. The driver is expending too much brainpower conversing with the person on the other end of the phone and not enough paying attention to the road. These drivers are as much of a threat to you and to your family as a drunk driver.

Studies from the University of North Carolina, the University of Utah, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Rhode Island quantify the specific impairment posed by phone conversations while driving.

Exxon Mobil prohibits its employees from talking on the phone while driving company cars. It did so after conducting a study finding that the braking reaction time of phone drivers is three times longer than that of drunk drivers. ExxonMobil researchers also found that phone drivers are as likely to rear-end the car ahead as drunks, and that they are unable to maintain position in their lane. As with all other studies, Exxon Mobil found that it makes no difference whether the driver uses a hands-free phone.

The University of Utah says that young phone drivers have the reaction times of senior citizens and are blind to events around them. "Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cell phone, you are not as likely to see it," Utah researcher David Strayer observed. University of Rhode Island researchers found that phone drivers have tunnel vision that excludes everything else. UNC says they are twice as likely to rear-end the car ahead as drivers not using phones. Meanwhile, research at Illinois demonstrated that conversations among occupants in a car produce no similar distraction.

None of the research has suggested that phones can be used safely by people who are responsible for piloting vehicles. The best that defenders of phone driving can manage is to point out that phones can be used to call for assistance or to report other motorists in distress. But such calls can be made just as effectively by passengers in the car or from a stopped car.

No complaints about the quality of driving and no highway safety initiatives can be taken seriously as long as it is legal for drivers to knowingly handicap themselves as severely as this research indicates.

Drivers of all ages should be required by law to hang up and drive.

Dan Carney is an automotive writer.


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