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A Call to Action - Regulate Use of Cell Phones on the Road

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A Call to Action:

Regulate Use of Cell Phones on the Road

When a cell phone goes off in a classroom or at a concert, we

are irritated, but at least our lives are not endangered. When we

are on the road, however, irresponsible cell phone users are more

than irritating: They are putting our lives at risk. Many of us have

witnessed drivers so distracted by dialing and chatting that they

resemble drunk drivers, weaving between lanes, for example, or

nearly running down pedestrians in crosswalks. A number of bills to

regulate use of cell phones on the road have been introduced in

state legislatures, and the time has come to push for their passage.

Regulation is needed because drivers using phones are seriously

impaired and because laws on negligent and reckless driving are

not sufficient to punish offenders.

No one can deny that cell phones have caused traffic deaths

and injuries. Cell phones were implicated in three fatal accidents in

November 1999 alone. Early in November, two-year-old Morgan

Pena was killed by a driver distracted by his cell phone. Morgan's

mother, Patti Pena, reports that the driver "ran a stop sign at 45

mph, broadsided my vehicle and killed Morgan as she sat in her car

seat." A week later, corrections officer Shannon Smith, who was

guarding prisoners by the side of the road, was killed by a woman

distracted by a phone call (Besthoff). On Thanksgiving weekend

that same month, John and Carole Hall were killed when a Naval

Academy midshipman crashed into their parked car. The driver said

in court that when he looked up from the cell phone he was dial-

ing, he was three feet from the car and had no time to stop

(Stockwell B8).

Expert testimony, public opinion, and even cartoons sug-

gest that driving while phoning is dangerous. Frances Bents, an

expert on the relation between cell phones and accidents, esti-

mates that between 450 and 1,000 crashes a year have some

connection to cell phone use (Layton C9). In a survey published

by Farmers Insurance Group, 87% of those polled said that cell

phones affect a driver's ability, and 40% reported having close

calls with drivers distracted by phones. Many cartoons have

depicted the very real dangers of driving while distracted (see

Fig. 1).

Scientific research confirms the dangers of using phones

while on the road. In 1997 an important study appeared in the

New England Journal of Medicine. The authors, Donald Redelmeier

and Robert Tibshirani, studied 699 volunteers who made their cell

phone bills available in order to confirm the times when they

had placed calls. The participants agreed to report any nonfatal

collision in which they were involved. By comparing the time of

a collision with the phone records, the researchers assessed the

dangers of driving while phoning. The results are unsettling:

We found that using a cellular telephone was associ-

ated with a risk of having a motor vehicle collision

that was about four times as high as that

among the same drivers when they were not using

their cellular telephones. This relative risk is similar

to the hazard associated with driving with a blood

alcohol level at the legal limit. (456)

The news media often exaggerated the latter claim ("similar

to" is not "equal to"); nonetheless, the comparison with drunk

driving suggests the extent to which cell phone use while driving

can impair judgment.

A 1998 study focused on Oklahoma, one of the few states to

keep records on fatal accidents involving cell phones. Using police

records, John M. Violanti of the Rochester Institute of Technology

investigated the relation between traffic fatalities in Oklahoma and

the use or presence of a cell phone. He found a ninefold increase

in the risk of fatality if a phone was being used and a doubled risk

simply when a phone was present in a vehicle (522-23). The latter

statistic is interesting, for it suggests that those who carry phones

in their cars may tend to be more negligent (or prone to distrac-

tions of all kinds) than those who do not.

Some groups have argued that state traffic laws make

legislation regulating cell phone use unnecessary. Sadly, this is not

true. Laws on traffic safety vary from state to state, and drivers

distracted by cell phones can get off with light punishment even




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