Cell phone use exposes hangups

March 26, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

If you want to liven up your next party, perhaps to the point where the police will be summoned, merely introduce the topic of driving while using a cell phone.

That is apparent from the reaction to my March 12 column in which it was suggested that an outright ban on the practice was not the right approach. Quite a few readers, it seems, have strong feelings on the issue.

John S. White of Stewartstown, Pa., titled his reply: "Wondering what planet you live on."

"I can't believe that you can honestly oppose making cell-phoning while driving illegal. I am beginning to suspect that you don't get out on the roads enough, which is a serious deficiency for someone presuming to write a column relating to driving," he wrote.

White found my suggestions for prudent use of cell phones, well, insufficient to say the least.

"In the old pre-mobile phone days, people used to make their necessary calls before leaving the house or office, but it did delay their departure," he wrote. "Now, they can get out of the house or office sooner and take care of their calling while driving, AND, since they have nothing else to do (in their minds) they can drag the conversations out as long as they care to. These are not calls of necessity, these are calls of convenience, and it is only getting worse."

White is entirely correct about that. We just disagree on the remedy. On my planet, law enforcement resources are stretched too thin to allow officers the luxury of busting people who are talking on cell phones but otherwise not committing infractions. Far better that the officers be employed operating a radar gun -- and handing out a second ticket to chatty speeders for exceeding the limit while distracted.

Cate Reisner of Baltimore didn't like that idea, however.

"Isn't that how seatbelt laws began?" she wrote. "Sorry, I don't trust legislatures to stop once they begin regulating something. Better to enforce current laws ... than keep piling it on."

The reader is referring to the way the state's law on seat belts initially made failure to wear one a "secondary" offense -- for which an officer could only stop you if you were doing something else wrong. It later mutated into a law allowing an officer to ticket for that offense alone.

Sometimes that's how things happen. People accept change only in stages. In my view, the General Assembly came down in the right place on seat belts. Maybe five years from now I'll agree with my previous correspondent about cell phones. But not yet.

Steve Marini of Columbia wrote to express satisfaction that the ban had been defeated this year. "A few years ago, the Maryland State Police did a survey and found that cell phone use correlated to less than 1 percent of all accidents in the study. That hardly justifies legislation. May our lawmakers focus on real problems," he wrote.

Thanks for the support, Steve, but this cell phone issue is a real problem. The question isn't so much whether to grapple with it, but how.

Also making the mistake of concurring with me is Steven H. "I agree that to single out phone users is [discriminatory]. It lets the paper reader, donut and coffee eaters, and those who take a hand off the wheel for more than a second off the hook," he wrote, suggesting that their insurance rates should go up.

Paper readers? Now you're hitting too close to home.

Karen Offutt of Upperco wrote that the column "sparked my ire." She said she sees hundreds of drivers using cell phones and thinks it should be a crime. "Without question I find these drivers distracted. They hesitate at traffic lights, go slower in the slow lane, stay in one or the other lane inappropriately, go about the act of driving as if it is incidental to their conversation," she wrote.

But Offutt went on to say that she herself uses her cell phone while driving.

"I am old enough to know I am distracted and I therefore keep my conversation very short," she wrote. "Young drivers unfortunately don't have the wisdom to associate consequences with actions the way more experienced drivers do."

There's the conundrum. How can you allow mature, self-aware motorists to hold brief, businesslike conversations and forbid young, foolish drivers from engaging in idle chat? Offutt is right on target, however, when she contends that hands-free phones should not be exempt from any ban. "Passing a law that says the phone must be on speaker is covering up the real problem of mental distraction," she wrote.

Tim Wallace of Houston writes: "Some people can drive and chat with no problem -- others just can't do it, and they need to accept the fact and stay off the phone. It's not as if the phone, like alcohol, somehow renders them especially `impaired' and unable to recognize that they are disrupting traffic due to inattentiveness."

Bill Kaup of Lutherville wondered whether I was pulling his leg with that column. "I have to disagree with you on cell phones as I believe they are inherently dangerous to use while driving. Anything which distracts you while driving is dangerous," he wrote.

And there's the dilemma. Should we ban outright anything that might distract from the task of driving? If so, shouldn't we deal with the greatest potential distraction first?

That's right. Children. Ms. Mom, you are charged with driving under the influence of a fussy 4-year-old. See you in court.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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