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August 8, 2001     Beverly Hills Weekly
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August 8, 2001
 

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The public opinion forum where Beverly Hills dukes out the issues E PRO Christopher Elliott CON Adam Thierer Six years ago, a trucker talking on his cell phone struck my Ford Escort on the New Jersey Turnpike. Although we both walked away from the crash, I'!i never forget how !he driver hid his portable phone and failed to mention he was using it to the officer dis- Patched to the accident scene. He knew that his phone use was a factor in the crash. The CTIA knows better, too. It knows that people have been injured or killed in car accidents because of cell phones. There are statistics, such as the oft-quoted study pub- lished by the New England Journal of Medicine, which says that talking and driving is as dangerous as drinking aqd driving. CTIA knows the roads would be safer if motorists Stayed off their cell phones. There are hard numbers to prove it. But how do those statistics get interpreted? They're belittled. The editorial claims cell Phones pose only a "negligible risk" because they cause only about 100 highway deatffs a Year. Only 100 deaths. I wonder how negligible the numbers might be if one of those 100 fatalities were a friend or family member. And I wonder how, many more near-miss- es, fender-benders or minor injuries result from the negligence of these preoccupi'ed dri- Yers. Here are a few facts they should have considered: An Insurance Research Council survey found that 84 percent of motorists believe Phone use while driving is a distraction. ' A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that dri- Ver inattention - including talking on a cell phone - is a primary or contributing factor in as many as 50 percent of all automobile crashes. A University of South Florida study found that "most mobile phone-related crashes OCcur due to drivers moving from their lane or colliding with a stopped vehicle in their lane, due mainly to inattention to the driving task." The cellular industry's rhetoric kind of reminds me of Big Tobacco's double-speak. When its lobbyists call for a "common sense" approach to tobacco that "accommodates" Smokers and nonsmokers, it is using the very same language that supporters of indis- criminate cell-phone chatting use. "Common sense" really just means the government shouldn't curb any of our rights, regardless of how abusive we are. "Accommodate" means that we continue to tolerate abhorrent behavior, such a's having smoke blown in our face - or being sideswiped by a ~aOtorist who's dialing a phone number. And, of course, the pro-tobacco forces claim there are enough laws on the books already. That is what the free chatters are also arguing. They call for "tougher enforce- ~ent of laws against reckless and inattentive driving already on the books, more strin- gent licensing for young people just learning to drive, a continued crackdown on drunk- en drivers and better driver education generally." Put in different words, the problem isn't as bad as everyone thinks it is, there are ~rlOugh rules already, so can't we all just get along? As a matter of fact, we can't. As travelers, we have to acknowledge what we already talking on a cell phone makes us a menace on the road. We have to turn our porta- off while we're traveling - not just for our sake, but also for the sake of the other There's no middle ground. We can't "accommodate" a single motorist who that he's the exception to this rule. and driving is as hazardous as drinking and driving, then it's time to treat it Way. The penalties for being caught on the phone while steering a car or truck must as strict as the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. cellular industry is on the wrong side of this argument. The halfliearted calls on site to "use your phone safely when driving" are like the tobacco industry issu- ; a guide to safe smoking or the National Rifle Association giving us tips on how to at Russian Roulette. Its approval of USA Today's controversial editorial is as reck- as it is self-serving. Wireless industry shouldn't be advocating the unrestricted use of its products. and cell phones don't go together. How many more victims will there be before the industry gets it? ~t.Qhrr.istopher EUiott is a travel commentator and author of "A Bridge to Nowhere: A tn the Florida Keysl " This editorial was also published on Biztravel.com You may soon be ticketed for using a cell phone in your car. Hundreds of bills have been introduced in state and municipal legislatures across America in recent years that make talking on a cell phone while driving a crime. So far, few such bills have become law. But the U.S. House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit has held hearings on the issue, and the anti-cell phone nannies are lobbying hard. With cell phone use exploding in recent years (more than 115 million wireless sub- scribers today), it is not surprising that these devices would cause some problems. But how big of a problem does cell phone use in cars pose? The results may surprise you. The AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety has released the results of a new study in which the group analyzed 26,000 traffic accidents to determine what factors contributed to those accidents. Among the top causes were: outside objects, persons, or events (19.7 percent of accidents surveyed); eating and drinking in the.car (18.8 percent); adjusting the radio, cassette, or CD player (11.4 percent); and distractions caused by other occu- pants in the vehicle (9.4 percent). The less significant causes listed by the survey were: moving objects in the vehicle (3.2 percent); using or dialing on a cell phone (!.5 percent); using other devices in a vehicle (!.4 percent); adjusting climate controls (1.2 percent), and smoking-related dis- tractions (I.2 percent). Compared to using a cell phone, it is 12 times more likelyyou will cause an accident by snacking in the car and eight times more likely you may cause an accident by toying with your car stereo. It would make more sense for policymakers to ban eating;Big Ma~ and listening to Britney Spears in our cars than it would'to ban cell This is not to say, however, that using a cell phone while driving doesn't pose some degree of risk. And this threat, critics argue, is likely to grow as cell phone use grows. But while new technologies often introduce new problems into society, still newer tech- nologies typically come along to solve those problems. For example, "hands-free" cellular devices, which employ an earpiece and a clip-on microphone, are on the market and widely used by motorists. One-button speed-dialing, an option on almost all phones, enables drivers to place calls without having to dial a series of numbers. And some phone companies are offering voice-activated calling, where all you need to do is say the number, and your phone will do the dialing. This, for instance, will allow drivers to simply say "call home" and let the phone do the rest. Imposing burdensome restrictions on cell phone use in cars, therefore, is unnecessary and may cost lives by having the unintended consequence of discouraging drivers from carrying a cell phone in their car. With an estimated 118,000 emergency calls placed by cell phone users every day, the life-saving applications of cell phones are well-estab- lished. If a ban were to discourage drivers from carrying phones in their cars, the costs would likely outweigh the benefits. On a more practical note, it is difficult to understand how such a ban would be enforced. Where will policymakers draw the line'? Since snacking behind the wheel and playing with your car stereo are more distracting and dangerous than cell phone use, should legislators ban those activities first? What about arguing with your spouse or kids in the car? Should that be policed? And what about the CB radios truckers still use? There's a simpler way to approach this problem from a public policy perspective: Don't try to ban technologies (cell phones, radios, CBs, etc.) or specific activities (con- versations, singing, smoking, etc.) inside the cabin of an automobile. Instead, simply enforce those laws already on the books dealing with reckless or negligent driving. If a driver is weaving in and out of traffic lanes, or posing a serious threat to others on the road for any reason, he or she should be pulled over and probably ticketed if the infraction is serious enough. In conclusion, a degree of patience and humility is necessary by policymakers. It is impossible to legislate a 100 percent risk-free society into existence. Technology is solv- ing a problem it created. Turning our nation's law enforcement officers into a cellular SWAT team in the meantime will only deter them from policing more dangerous activi- ties while threatening to further erode our personal liberties. o Adam Thiere*r is the director of telecommunications studies at the conservative public research group Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., a conservative public research group. This article originally appeared in the Record August 2 -8, 2001 5