Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cell Mates

A friend and I were driving the other day when we came upon a car whose driver was doing a pretty fair imitation of the proverbial drunken sailor.

She sped up, slowed down, weaved in and out of lanes. And that was all in the span of one block.

This wasn't the aftermath of a three-martini lunch, however. Instead, she was busy talking on her cell phone while piloting an SUV the size of a dirigible.

It could have been worse. She could have been multi-tasking. She could have been applying lipstick, drinking coffee, changing CDs and reading the newspaper at the same time. It happens.

"I thought talking on a cell phone while driving was illegal," my friend remarked, hopefully.

Well, almost.

The California ban won't go into effect until July 1 of this year and, while well-intentioned, the bill was softened up by a bevy of body blows delivered by the telecommunications lobby. In fact, it took five years to pass.

The law will allow for cell phone use with hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets. Fines for breaking the new law will be $20 for the first offense and $50 every time after, but none of the tickets will impact the driver's insurance. Hardly the stuff of an episode of "Cops."

Aside from the fact that Bluetooth headsets make you look like a Cyborg from a sci-fi flick, there is evidence that suggests requiring drivers to use hands-free devices with their cell phones will do little to reduce crashes.

Research shows being a distracted driver is not necessarily about having both hands on the wheel, it's more about focusing attention on the road.

That should come as no surprise.

Even with both hands on the wheel, learning via cell phone that you've been dumped by your significant other, that someone unknown to you just ran up $5,000 on your credit card at a topless joint or discovering that fixing that leaky faucet will require replumbing your entire house is not going to do a lot to sharpen up your driving skills.

"There's a common misperception that hands-free phones are safer when the research clearly suggests that they're both equally risky," Arthur Goodwin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, told the Associated Press.

Among other reasons cited was the fact that the reaction time of cell phone users slows dramatically, increasing the risk of accidents and tying up traffic in general, and when young adults use cell phones while driving, they're as bad as sleepy septuagenarians.

"If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone," said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. "It's like instantly aging a large number of drivers."

Another Utah study showed that motorists who talk on hand-held or hands-free cellular phones are as impaired as drunken drivers.

"We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit" of 0.08 percent, which is the minimum level that defines illegal drunken driving in most U.S. states, said study co-author Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology.

"If legislators really want to address driver distraction, then they should consider outlawing cell phone use while driving."

Good idea. Except most Americans consider cell phones a God-given right, along with handguns and cheap mortgages.

One city tried a total ban to mostly bad reviews.

Lawrence, Kansas, proposed outlawing all cell phone use in vehicles several years ago.
Before they could hold a hearing, the telecommunications truth squad hit town like an invading army.

Jamie Hastings, director of government affairs for T-Mobile USA, said that her company opposed a complete ban, and that city officials should consider a ban on "McDonald's coffee and kids in the back seat, which can be just as distracting."

John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp., said it would be appropriate public policy if all distractions were included in the ordinance. "But since that's not the case, I imagine we would not be supportive of it."

One citizen likened prohibiting cell phone use in the car to a ban on listening to the radio. Another predicted economic doom for the community.

And city officials conceded enforcing such a ban would stretch police resources.
The effort failed.

In the meantime, a ban on hand-held cell phones in Washington, D.C., has resulted in 28,600 citations since 2004.

Which means people are mostly ignoring the law.

Worse, the state of Washington had to pass a law banning text messaging while driving. OMG, who in the world texts while driving? Apparently they do in the land of clouds and caffeine. It makes cell phone use seem downright safe.

Meanwhile, back in California, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he's sure the new law will save lives.

"There isn't a study in the world that says you're safer driving with a cell phone clutched to your ear than when you are driving with both hands on the wheel," he said.

Time will tell.

But next time, Joe, how about a bill banning cell phone use in restaurants.

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