No simple way to end the threat posed by drivers with cell phones

July 20, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - When it comes to cell phones in cars, there are two kinds of people: those who make calls behind the wheel and those who hate them.

The latter group includes not only me but a majority of the Chicago City Council, which recently banned motorists from talking on handheld devices while driving.

Before these gadgets became common, the idea of being able to make a call from the comfort of your car was a pleasant prospect. The reality turned out to be pleasant as well - until we discovered all the other people doing the same thing, and driving badly as they did it.

Mobile-phone addicts insist they are perfectly able to drive and converse at the same time. But it's a feat like a major-league pitcher's batting: It can be done, but it can't be done well. If you ever venture down a busy sidewalk, you will notice that most cell phone users aren't even capable of walking and talking at the same time.

Mayor Richard M. Daley sees the ban as a safety measure that is "just common sense." But common sense is sometimes nothing more than an educated guess. While common sense may say that hands-free phoning will reduce the risk, the evidence has a different tale to tell.

There is no longer any doubt that cell phone use makes for worse drivers. A recent study of accidents published in the British Medical Journal estimated that drivers using phones are four times more likely than other drivers to get into serious crashes. Previous research suggested that a cell phone and a bottle of vodka have roughly similar effects on driving skills.

So why not ban their use? Because no one is talking about banning all cell phones - only handheld ones. That, it turns out, is about as rational as a speed limit that applies to red cars but not blue cars.

One scientific investigation after another has arrived at the same stark conclusion: The problem with using a cell phone behind the wheel is not that it occupies your hand but that it occupies your mind. Human brains just aren't up to the task of giving adequate attention to driving and talking on the phone at the same time, and a lapse in concentration can be fatal.

The British Medical Journal study reported that "the use of currently available hands-free devices does not seem to reduce the risk." Says Robert Hahn, director of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center on Regulatory Studies, "There is no evidence that banning the use of handheld devices while driving promotes safety."

Having once endorsed the idea, I hate to admit that I was mistaken. Given what we now know, all this law promises to do is induce motorists to substitute one unsafe activity for another equally unsafe activity.

That raises the obvious question: If all cell phone use behind the wheel is dangerous, why not forbid it all, hands-free as well as handheld?

There's a plausible case to be made for that, but then, there was a plausible case to be made for Prohibition. Even a sound principle can be taken too far.

In the first place, a law against all cell phone use by drivers would be a nightmare to enforce. Are cops going to pull over anyone who's alone in his car with his lips moving?

This would quickly become the mostly widely ignored statute since the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws.

About the only way to stop motorists from using hands-free gadgets would be to force carmakers to provide equipment that disables cell phones when the car is moving.

But we could also require factory installation of devices to require every driver to pass a Breathalyzer test before the car will start.

There's a word for simple, effective measures like these: impossible. They're perfect for a utopian society, but utopian societies are not for this world.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant observed, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Sometimes the law has to accept that human beings are imperfect, intractable creatures who cannot be compelled to behave in the way that is best for them and those around them. If you want a society in which drivers don't talk on cell phones, here's my suggestion:

Get a time machine.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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