A Kansas University professor's studies of distracted drivers concludes that cell phones in cars are dangerous, even if they are headset models and the drivers keep both hands on the wheel.
"It's not using the hands that are causing the accidents," said Paul Atchley, an assistant psychology professor. "It's having a conversation with someone outside of the vehicle that's causing the problem."
So New York didn't quite get it right when it recently banned use of hand-held cellular phones in cars, Atchley said.
"The problem is hands-free cell phones are still legal," he said.
Atchley cites stick-shift drivers to make his point. They're safe, he said, with only one hand on the wheel. It's when cell-phone users start talking on them that they lose focus.
"When you're on the road, your task is to drive, not to eat a bowl of cereal, not to put on makeup," he said. "Anything that prevents you from attending to the road is a potential danger, and cell phones are more numerous than people eating hamburgers."
Conversations with people in the same car differ from cell phone chats because conversations with a passenger can slow or stop if the driver needs to concentrate on traffic, Atchley said. But with cell phones, the conversation usually continues regardless of road and traffic conditions.
Jeff Seymour, sales manager at Midwest Digital, 2201 W. 25th St., said he wouldn't argue much with Atchley's conclusions.
"It's got to be unsafe, because it takes attention away from what you are doing," he said. "But it's probably less dangerous to have something you don't have to hold."
Michelle Pacheco, Lawrence, said she learned the hard way not to use her phone while driving. A few months ago, while talking with a friend, she turned left in front of traffic when she thought she had a green turn arrow.
She came close enough to an accident to make her rethink her cell phone use.
"I use it more with caution," she said. "I usually avoid using the phone while driving, and I don't use it while driving around in the city."
Atchley, who does not own a cell phone, said the phones were valuable in emergency situations -- but that a person would typically be stopped in an emergency.
"I personally would like to see the city of Lawrence ban cell phone use while driving, hands free or hands on," Atchley said. "They're dangerous to people in the public realm."
-- Staff writer Matt Merkel-Hess can be reached at 832-7187.