Every motorist has likely witnessed a car or truck driving hazardously, perhaps failing to yield where appropriate or drifting dangerously near oncoming cars, and then quickly recognized the cause -- the distracted driver has a cell phone plastered to his or her ear.
Maryland lawmakers appear to have finally recognized the threat and are moving forward with legislation to restrict driver cell phone use except by those who use hands-free devices. While it's not clear that such technology (usually head-sets and/or microphones) improves matters much, it's welcome news that Maryland could soon join the growing number of jurisdictions that ban drivers from using hand-helds.
It was not an easy choice to make. Over the years, this newspaper's opinion on the matter has gradually shifted as evidence of the danger of distracted drivers has mounted.
Cell phones are a tremendous convenience. The attraction of using them while driving is considerable: As commutes have lengthened, motorists can put the "lost" hours behind the wheel to some more productive use, talking to clients, reporting to the office, even negotiating deals.
But it is just that kind of scenario that can lead to deadly consequences. The National Safety Council estimates that driving while talking or texting on the phone results in 1.6 million crashes each year, or about one-quarter of all accidents. It increases a driver's risk of crashing by four-fold.
That's not something to be taken lightly. It translates to hundreds of thousands of injuries and thousands of deaths each year.
Last week, the state Senate approved the ban by a single vote, 24-23, reflecting public ambivalence over both the hazards and benefits of driving while on the phone. One Republican opponent likened it to the Big Brother government of George Orwell's "1984" (as difficult as it is to imagine Winston Smith and his compatriots having either free access to cell phones or the opportunity to drive around their totalitarian state at will).
But the point is not merely to protect drivers from themselves but to protect the rest of us from the distracted drivers. That's why public opinion surveys consistently show about 75 percent of the public supports banning hand-held phones.
The Senate version includes some compromises. The infraction would be secondary, meaning that drivers couldn't be pulled over for the offense, only ticketed if police had observed a separate traffic violation such as speeding or running a red light. The fine is only $40, less than half what is included in a still-pending House version of the bill.
Either chamber's approach would be reasonable given evolving public awareness of the problem. If the legislation is successful, Maryland will join just six states and the District of Columbia that have so far chosen to ban hand-held phones.
It is also unlikely to be the last word on cell phone safety. Maryland already bans writing cell phone text messages while driving -- but not reading them. The House has already approved legislation to close that loophole.
Obviously, talking on the phone is not the only cause of driver distraction, but it is a major one. Given the choice between highway safety and convenience, delegates ought to make the right call and endorse the Senate approach.
I'm all for safety, but if this is the goal, you also have to give out tickets for eating a Big Mac (57 percent increase in risk) versus cell phones (30 percent). It isn't right to single out one distracting behavior.
ÃÂzAnd it is a boondoggle for cell phone companies to make people buy hands-free devices. The research is overwhelming that there's no difference between hand-held cell phones and hands-free devices.