Jay Goldscher calls his car phone "a lifesaver in this fast-paced world we live in."
But he also remembers an accident near Columbia that he's sure was caused by a driver talking on his car phone.
"You could tell he was absorbed in his conversation, not paying much attention to what was happening on the road. And he piled right into a car that was stopped at a red light."
Mr. Goldscher, vice president of a Woodlawn printing company, said: "Talking on car phones is potentially a very serious problem. When you're talking to your plant or a client and you've gotten some bad news or something serious comes up, it just zaps your concentration away."
There are more than 6 million car phones in use across the United States, a number that has risen by more than 50 percent in just the past year and is growing every day. Data about safety hazards is scarce, but a debate is growing: Are the phones a benign tool that can enhance safety when used properly, as the phone industry, many users and even some police contend? Or are they one more cause of accidents, as many traffic safety experts warn?
Those familiar with the issue say there are no clear-cut answers to these questions.
"I have seen people talking on the phone and shuffling papers in a briefcase and completely take their attention off the road," said Tfc. James Brooks, of the Maryland State Police. He estimates that car phones could be a contributing factor in as many as 10 percent or 15 percent of the state's traffic accidents. But he emphasizes that this is a guess that cannot be verified.
"There's no way of knowing," he explained. "Witnesses saying [that someone was talking on the car phone] are slim and none. . . . And drivers certainly won't admit it."
But several recent studies highlight the potential risks of using car phones while driving:
* Research published earlier this year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that using a car phone in simulated driving situations distracted drivers' attention from the road by 20 percent or more. The highest rate of distraction was noted in drivers over 50.
* Similar findings came from a report released this spring by the Canadian Automobile Association. Talking on a call involving decision-making slowed the reaction time of drivers aged 51 or older.
* And in a study published this month in Accident Analysis & Prevention, an international professional journal, researchers from the Netherlands concluded that while instinctive driving techniques were not impaired by using car phones, "perception and decision-making may be critically impaired."
Use of car phones is not routinely noted on accident reports in any state. "We have not experienced any situations where we can directly attribute car phones to any serious situation," said Sgt. Ed Lashley, Maryland State Police spokesman. "We haven't considered it a problem where data should be collected."
Sergeant Lashley added that the state police encourage motorists to use their car phones to report drunken drivers. "If we perceived it as a serious problem, we wouldn't encourage the use of them to report violations," he said.
This is the flip side of the safety issue for car phones, something emphasized by people in the car phone industry and many users: Car phones, they say, enable motorists to report accidents or behavior, such as drunken driving, that might contribute to an accident, and they can be invaluable for a driver whose car breaks down or runs out of gas in a remote area.
"I think they're a tremendous contribution to safety; I've phoned in three accidents and two drunk drivers since I've had one," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, a member of the House subcommittee on transportation. Mr. Maloney is not aware of any legislative efforts to regulate the use of car phones for safety reasons.
There has been activity in a handful of other states, although no legislation has been passed, according to a survey done by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group. In Hawaii, state Sen. Mary-Jane McMurdo has introduced a bill to prohibit driving while holding a phone.
"I had just recently gotten a car phone, and as far as I was concerned, it was unusable on the road," Senator McMurdo said. "I had to hold it with one hand and steer with the other, and our traffic is just too crazy for that to be safe."
Senator McMurdo, who lives in Honolulu, said that she solved her problem by getting a speaker phone, a solution that the industry as a whole is moving toward as it grapples with safety concerns.
"There is no question that a cellular telephone improperly used can be a distraction, just as fooling around with your stereo or attending to your baby in a car seat can be distractions," said Norman Black, director of public affairs and communications for CTIA.