Sunday, January 11, 2009

Safety group urges U.S. ban on drivers' cell phones

From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

Council officials acknowledged a total ban could take years.

"Public awareness and the laws haven't caught up with what the scientists are telling us," Froetscher said. "There is no dispute that driving while talking on your cell phone, or texting while driving, is dangerous."

Froetscher said the council examined more than 50 scientific studies before reaching its decision. One was a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis that estimates 6 percent of vehicle crashes, causing about 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious injuries a year, are attributable to cell phone use. Hands-free cell phones are just as risky as hand held phones, she added.

"It's not just what you're doing with your hands — it's that your head is in the conversation and so your eyes are not on the road," Froetscher said.

John Walls, vice president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cell phone trade group, objected to a complete ban. He said there are many instances where the ability to make a phone call while driving helps protect safety.

More here.

Of course, the wireless industry's lobbying group opposes a complete ban.

Here's my deal. Some years back, when I made a daily commute from Houston's East side out to Baytown to teach high school, I was in a wreck. While talking on my cell phone. It was a ten car pile up, but I didn't get hurt--it was heavy traffic, and I was only going about thirty or so. The cop on the scene, after interviewing everybody involved, gave me a ticket for "failure to control speed to avoid an accident." I guess that's what comes from the investigative style of a dunderheaded beat cop: my insurance company's more in-depth investigation discovered that the guy two cars ahead of me didn't have any brake lights, which was enough for my insurance company to sue his insurance company for damages. That is, my rates didn't go up even though according to the cop I was at fault.

Whatever. I know that I rearended the car in front of me because it came to an instant and complete stop against a guy who didn't have any brake lights. But I can't help but think that if I hadn't been talking on the phone I would have had a second or two more to react, which probably would have allowed me to drive away from the scene with no trouble at all. That is, I'll always believe that being distracted by my cell phone was a decisive factor in my wreck.

Banning cell phone use while driving is a no-brainer to me. However you look at it, it's a distraction. Multiple studies support this. The problem here is that people have been doing it for years; people have come to have an expectation that they can chat away while driving with no problem at all. And, as with drunk driving, many drivers haven't wrecked while talking on their phones, and falsely believe there is no risk involved.

The safety group pushing the ban has a great deal of common sense in understanding that attitudes must change before anything can actually be done. But public interest organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers did something similar back in the 80s. It can be done again.