Another Perspective

Cell Phones and Driving Don’t Mix

Yapping drivers are as dangerous as besotted ones -- so why the selective morality?

By 7.13.06

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If "impairment" is the justification for aggressively pursuing drunk drivers, how come cell phone yakkers get a free pass?

Several studies -- including, most recently, one published in the journal Human Factors -- have found that people blathering away on their phones while driving are as functionally addled as boozers in terms of being distracted, inattentive, having slowed reaction times and so on. This goes for hands-free as well as hand-held phones.

And yet, there are few repercussions for driving while drunk -- on conversation.

Some states have outlawed the use of hand-held phones by a driver in a moving car -- and there has been a campaign (though not legally binding in most areas) to encourage people to pull over when they need to make a call. "Hang up and drive" bumper stickers can be seen pretty commonly on the bumpers of cars owned by people who've probably had a close call with a cell phone Chatty Kathy or Businessman Bob too wrapped up in his gabble to notice the light just turned red.

But that's about it.

And yet, cell phones and cars can be just as lethal as Cuervo Gold and cars. According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, for example, drivers distracted by cell phones are the cause of 2,600 motor vehicle deaths each year -- and 330,000 injuries.

Research done by University of Utah psychology professor Frank Drews found that drivers distracted by their cell phones are as effectively impaired as drivers with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .08 -- the legal definition of drunk driving in most states.

"Instant aging" is how researcher and psychology professor David Strayer describes the effect of yawping on a cell phone on a teenager's ability to notice and respond in time to changes in the driving environment, such as the brake lights of the car ahead suddenly coming on. Test subjects in the 18-25 age group needed 18 percent more time to recognize and respond to brake lights coming on -- and it took them longer to re-adjust their speed after slowing down.

Just as if they'd had a couple of beers.

But instead of a DWI arrest, loss of license and other heavy punishments, the worst the authorities can bring to bear in most cases is a citation for "failing to maintain full control of the vehicle" -- or some such. There are no cell phone checkpoints -- no periodic enforcement campaigns to weed out cell phone-impaired motorists.

And little social opprobrium.

The reason for the selective enforcement (and cultural toleration) is that drinking has become a sort of moral fetish for the country -- while constantly yapping on a cell phone has become the modern equivalent of "one for the road." Drinking and driving used to be equally accepted, even winked at -- and not so very long ago. Remember the Cannonball Run movies of the '70s? Dean Martin (dressed as a priest, no less) nipping from his glass of scotch on the rocks as he weaved uncertainly to the cockpit of his Ferrari? It was hilarious. Everyone got a laugh -- in part, because so many of us did exactly the same thing (although more likely we'd be driving a Pinto or maybe a Nova).

That, of course, has changed. Today, it's not funny at all to get soused and then get behind the wheel. Indeed, driving drunk -- even drinking at all -- is the object of a neo-Prohibitionist crusade. It's looked down upon as grubby and low class. Those who drive with even a little alcohol in their system are mercilessly crucified if caught -- and regarded as leprous idiots by most right-thinking people.

All well and good. Drinking and driving definitely don't mix. But if the standard for jihad is public safety, then how come the cell phone-addled get a pass?

It is still perfectly legal to drive while half your mind is someplace else -- so long as it's not because you've had a beer or two.

Not that it matters to the person you just t-boned with your minivan, of course.

The issue of cell phones and cars reveals the weird hypocrisy and selective focus of our authorities, traffic safety doyens and culture in general. When drinking was socially acceptable, driving drunk was a no-big-deal thing. Everyone did it -- and even if you got caught, it the punishments were relatively mild; there was no heavy cross to bear. We look at cell phone usage today in much the same way.

Despite the clear evidence of its threat to public safety when done behind the wheel of a moving car, apparently nothing substantive will be done about it until our selective morality shifts gears once again.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.