Archive for Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Dangerous distraction

June 27, 2001


Cell phones can be a fatal distraction to drivers, but they aren't the only problem

A ban on motorists talking on hand-held cell phones has passed the New York legislature and is headed for the governor's desk along with a fair amount of controversy.

This law certainly taps into the frustration many Americans share about cell phones and the rude and unsafe ways they are used by their owners. The attraction of being able to talk on the phone anywhere you are apparently has made people lose sight of their manners and, in some cases, their common sense.

On any given day, probably any driver in Lawrence could cite at least one instance of someone who was driving erratically or inattentively while holding a cell phone to his or her ear. The New York law would address this threat, but perhaps not fully.

The law, which would go into effect Nov. 1, would ban hand-held cell phones but would allow drivers to use hands-free cell phone systems. That may mean they have two hands on the wheel, but it doesn't mean their attention is on their driving.

In fact, the American Automobile Assn. is criticizing the law because it allows hands-free systems. Even though drivers don't have to hold the phone, the conversations they are having hold a significant portion of their attention. Such inattention can be dangerous or even fatal for someone behind the wheel.

On the other hand, some New York opponents to the law also point to the many other distractions that can beset drivers and say it is unfair to single out cell-phone users.

"To think that we're going to do this when at the same time I can still use my laptop, I still can read a paper, I can still change my pants while driving 65 mph, I think there's just something wrong," said Assemblyman Patrick Manning.

Good point. Although there probably aren't many people trying to change their pants while driving, it isn't unusual to find people driving on the highway while reading a paper, eating, looking at a date book or applying makeup. To some degree, these activities pose the same distracting danger as either a hands-free or hand-held cell phone.

This is no small problem. According to industry figures, there are about 115 million cell phones in use in the United States. A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the chance of an accident was four times greater when a driver was using a hand-held cell phone.

Banning hand-held cell phones may remove one threat, but it certainly won't remove them all. Making sure a driver's attention is primarily on the road requires both judgment and common sense. Think back to the last time you had or almost had a traffic accident. Were you doing something besides driving? Were you thinking about something else? Were you not giving your full attention to the road?

If you answered yes to any of those questions whether the situation involved a cell phone or not it may be time to re-evaluate your driving habits.

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