A couple of measures being studied by the city's Traffic Safety Commission probably are the topic of considerable conversation among Lawrence residents.
Some of those conversations probably are taking place on cellular phones, some of which are being held by people operating motor vehicles. Therein lies the problem.
At their meeting Monday night, commission members failed to reach consensus on two proposed ordinances: one that would bar the use of cellular phones by drivers under 18 and one that would double the fines for inattentive driving for people involved in a traffic accident while talking on the phone. Some commissioners thought the double fines would be hard to enforce because drivers would be unlikely to confess they were talking on the phone, and others thought it unfair to penalize only young drivers for using cell phones when older drivers might be equally distracted.
Both are good points, but the traffic officials' solution may be to simply ban all cell phone use by drivers in Lawrence.
Proponents of the cell phone ban are absolutely right that drivers need to recognize that driving a vehicle is a risky business that demands their full attention. Probably 90 percent of the conversations drivers are having on their cell phones easily could wait until they got to their destination when it would be much safer to make their calls.
But how can the city attack cell phone usage without attacking all other driving distractions such as eating in the car, managing unruly children or fiddling with a CD player? All of those distractions - including cell phone use - already can be handled under laws that govern inattentive driving.
People advocating for the ban have offered some research showing people on the phone are much more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. But, at least so far, the numbers in Kansas don't show that cell phones are any more dangerous than many other driving distractions.
The Kansas Department of Transportation has started keeping track of accidents involving distractions in the last three years. Last year, 292 accidents involved cell phones, but 909 accidents involved other distractions like reaching for objects in the car (presumably, objects other than a phone). A KDOT spokesman told the Journal-World that although cell phone usage has gotten much attention lately, he considered it part of the overall problem of inattentive driving.
That makes a lot of sense. If Lawrence officials want to attack inattentive driving, they not only would have to ban cell phones, they would have to close drive-up windows at local restaurants and fine drivers for having distracting conversations with their passengers. Singling out such activities is unreasonable. The bottom line is whether people are being attentive to their driving, and that law already is on the books.