Cellular distractions

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 11:21 p.m.
As it turns out, the old-fashioned glassed-in telephone booths that once dotted streetscapes didn't disappear after all. They just grew wheels.
Cell phones are just another distraction for drivers. And some cities and states are beginning to limit or restrict their use by motorists.
In Florida, only the Legislature can make a decision about how drivers use cell phones. A few years ago, the Legislature passed a law that prevents communities from taking action via local ordinances.
It seems that communities were beginning to become concerned about driving and cell phone use. But because the cell phone industry can better concentrate its lobbying power in Tallahassee, that's now where the action has to be.
It's odd, because the Republican Party controls both houses of the Florida Legislature, and the state has a Republican governor. And the Republican philosophy is that local officials best know how to deal with the problems in their communities.
Not so with cell phones - or billboards, for that matter. It's another area where Tallahassee has made it more difficult for local officials to act.
Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Some cities ban the use of the devices.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently surveyed cell phone use by motorists. About 10 percent of the people on the road use them; about 6 percent of the drivers were observed holding phones to their ears while driving.
While research of cell phone use as a contributory cause of accidents is still thin, there are compelling reasons to at least require hand-free cell phones in cars - if not ban them entirely while driving.
A study in the July issue of the British Medical Journal, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found drivers on cell phones were four times as likely to be involved in an accident. Anne McCartt, author of the study, noted that the "main finding of a four-fold increase in injury crash risk was consistent across groups of drivers. Male and female drivers experienced about the same increase in risk from using a phone. So did drivers older and younger than 30, and drivers using handheld and hand-free phones."
Another study by the University of Utah found cell phone use greatly reduces reaction time. "If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone," said David Strayer, a psychology professor at the university. "It's like instantly aging a large number of drivers."
Lawyers are routinely issuing subpoenas for cell phone records to determine what a motorist was doing at the time of a crash. In many instances, callers involved in an accident who were able to call 911 were also on the cell phone immediately before making the 911 call.
Businesses might also want to take note that if a motorist who caused an accident was using the cell phone for a business-related call, the plaintiff's attorney can attempt to link the business to the suit for damages as well.
The NHTSA recently recommended that legislation be passed banning teenage drivers from using cell phones. For adults, the NHTSA recommends cell phones be used while driving only in an emergency. Otherwise, pull off the road, or wait until reaching the destination.
Think of it not only as an accident-prevention measure, but as a tip of the safety hat to the rapidly disappearing roadside phone booth.

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