Hang up and drive

Cell phones: Legislation would outlaw drivers using hand-held cell phones.

February 23, 2002

IF YOU'VE ever been on the road behind -- or worse yet, beside -- a driver who is driving erratically, hitting the brakes then speeding up, or weaving from lane to lane, the first question that came to your mind may have been: Is that clown drunk or is he on the phone?

There's a reason those are the most obvious choices. A 1997 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people who drive while talking on the telephone create the same risk factors as those who are driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent. In Maryland, that's drunk.

With that kind of research in mind, Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, has, for the fourth year in a row, introduced a bill that would prohibit motorists from using hand-held telephones while driving.

The previous bills all failed, but this year there's a difference: This month, five people were killed on the Capital Beltway when a woman talking on a cell phone lost control of her sport utility vehicle, which jumped a guardrail and landed on a minivan.

A single accident is no reason to change public policy or state law, but that horrendous accident came amid increased concern over the dangers of "multitasking drivers," meaning those who carry on business or social telephone conversations while speeding along the roadways. The danger has become greater as SUVs have become bigger, heavier and more menacing.

In one of the most thorough studies attempting to correlate cell phone use with accident records, the University of Montreal's Transportation Safety Laboratory last year reported that cell phone users have a 38 percent higher risk of accidents, and that the more time a driver spends on the phone, the higher the risk of an accident becomes. Considerably more alarming, a more recent study by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida set the increased risk factor at up to 300 percent.

But despite all this, there is a strong reaction in this country against regulating the use of cell phones while driving. The makers of cell phones oppose such legislation, not surprisingly. And so do the millions of people who routinely conduct business or chat with friends while on the road. Chatting with a friend (her boyfriend) is apparently what Dawn Richardson was doing on the Capital Beltway; it turned out to be a tragically costly conversation.

Even the researchers, though, cannot quite agree on how to solve the problem.

Recent studies have indicated that it is not so much the holding and dialing of a phone while driving that prove most distracting (though conventional wisdom might dictate otherwise), it is the conversation with someone not in the car, and so not tuned in to the rhythm and flow of traffic, that takes a driver's mind off the road.

If that is so, Mr. Arnick's bill, which allows hands-free phone devices for drivers, would not eliminate the risk. But it would diminish it, and that would be a good first step. Future statistics should tell whether that one step is enough.

Opponents of the legislation claim that individual drivers should be allowed to decide whether it's safe for them to talk and drive at the same time, and that might be a persuasive argument if only the driver's life were at risk. Sadly, we know that is simply not the case.

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