Cell Phones and Driving: More Legislative Talk Than Action

 

You've seen this picture as you drive to work or to the store: drivers talking on their cell phones and navigating at the same time. Is driving while chatting on a cell phone dangerous? Some governing bodies say "yes."

Supermodel Niki Taylor is a tragic symbol of the hazards of driving and dialing. She has been in critical condition in Atlanta since early last Sunday (4/29) after an automobile accident that occurred when her driver was distracted by his cell phone.

In 1999, Brooklyn, Ohio, a suburb in Cleveland, became the first jurisdiction in the United States to make it illegal to talk on a hand-held cell phone while driving. Mayor John Coyne pushed the ban after witnessing a cell phone accident. The regulation allows for one exception: emergency calls.

Only three states have taken steps in recent years, and they were minor:

  • In California, rental cars must be equipped with instructions on safe use of technology.
  • Florida bars motorists from using cell phone headsets that cover both ears.
  • Massachusetts legislators, meanwhile, decided to prohibit school bus drivers from using cell phones and require motorists to keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times.  
  • This year, 40 states considered similar legislation says Matt Sundeen, a transportation policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver.

    A Tennessee bill that would have prohibited drivers under 18 from using phones in vehicles got through the state Senate, but died in the House this year. "It's really minor stuff that's passed at the state level," Sundeen told The Business Journal of Kansas City.

    At least 10 local jurisdictions in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones, though hands-free versions are acceptable. In New York City, cabdrivers are barred from using cell phones on duty.

    Opponents of restrictions say cell phone use is one of many distractions to drivers, such as food, passengers, children and the radio.

    "It is wrong to single out mobile phones.We believe that it is left up to our customers and not by legislation " said Dan Wilinsky, a Sprint PCS spokesman, adding that his company believes in education over legislation.

    According to a current study by The American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, motorists using or dialing cell phones accounted for only 1.5 percent of auto crashes, The study, which analyzed more than 26,145 accidents that occurred in the United States from 1995 to 1998, found that driver error played a role about half the time.

    The cellular phone industry hopes to calm the current debate with better technology. New features include automatic voice dialing and hands-free speaker phones as better solutions to safety concerns."Safety has remained a top concern," Wilinsky said. Sprint asks employees to use hands-free devices while driving, offers discounts on hands-free equipment and provides education on safety in the stores and on the website.
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