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Archive for Saturday, October 8, 2005

Distracted drivers

Inattentive drivers are a danger to themselves and others, but an ordinance aimed specifically at cell phone use is unnecessary.

October 8, 2005

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Admittedly, the idea of banning cell phone conversations by people operating a motor vehicle has a lot of appeal.

You don't have to be on the road, in Lawrence or anywhere else, very long to witness bonehead driving by someone holding a cell phone to his or her ear. Studies have indicated that even with hands-free phone models, talking on the phone seriously distracts drivers from the business at hand. It's aggravating and dangerous for phone-free drivers who share the road.

Those issues obviously were on the minds of Traffic Safety Commission members this week when they agreed to have the city's legal department draft an ordinance to ban drivers from using cell phones in Lawrence. It's a valid concept, but it has some flaws.

Key among those is the ability - and the city's willingness - to enforce such a measure. It seems unlikely that officers would be instructed to set up patrols to stop and ticket drivers simply for using a cell phone. Other measures, such as the city's fireworks ban and smoking ban, haven't been marked by that kind of vigorous enforcement.

If tickets for using a cell phone are to be issued primarily when that violation is seen as contributing to an accident, the ordinance would seem unnecessary. Such a violation would already be covered by laws against inattentive driving.

That is, after all, the key. People talking on cell phones usually aren't paying enough attention to their driving. However, if the city intends to specifically outlaw cell phone use, it also might need to attack any number of other activities that could be just as distracting to a driver.

Will the city also ban eating in the car or fiddling with the radio? Both of those activities distract the driver and take at least one hand off the wheel. Traffic commissioners also discussed the possibility of targeting "novice" drivers with a cell phone ban. Laws in some areas also ban new drivers from carrying passengers in their cars because of the distractions other people, especially other teenagers, can create for drivers. Again, should it be just cell phones, or all driving distractions?

The use of cell phones by some drivers clearly is a problem. It would be nice if drivers simply recognized how distracting a telephone conversation can be and chose to use better judgment about when and where they had those conversations. If that isn't the case, Lawrence police can be instructed to more vigorously enforce inattentive driving laws, including inattentive driving while using a cell phone. A separate ordinance seems unnecessary.

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