Another Perspective

Hang Up and Drive!

Cell phone users should stay off the road.

By 1.20.04

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Lyndon Johnson once said of Gerald Ford that he was so dumb he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time -- or words to that effect. Well, most of us are at least a bit smarter than that -- but that doesn't mean we can talk on the phone and still give full time and attention to driving. The task is simply not possible, yet more and more of us insist on being glued to a cell phone while we're in our vehicles -- one hand on the wheel, half our brain diverted by some almost always non-essential gabbling.

The consequences are not pretty.

• In mid-January 2004, a five-year-old girl was killed and more than a dozen other children injured when a trucker -- "fumbling for his cell phone," according to state police -- lost control of his semi and hit a stopped school bus in North Carolina.

• The California Highway Patrol (CHP) attributed 4,699 accidents, 2,786 injuries and 31 deaths resulting from those wrecks to distracted driving caused by people yakking on their phones. (This was for a nine-month period in 2001; the CHP estimates the total for the full year to be closer to 6,000 crashes.)

• The Harvard University Center for Risk Analysis estimates that there are as many as 1.5 million crashes annually in the United States -- leading to 560,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths -- "due to phone use in moving vehicles."

And the problem is not restricted to portable/hand-held phones -- which have been banned on safety grounds in some states and the District of Columbia. As University of Rhode Island Professor Manbir Sodhi put it, "Holding the phones isn't the main issue. Thinking is."

Sodhi conducted a study of the effects of talking on a cell phone -- including the hands-free type that have become popular options on many new cars -- and found that people having conversations in a moving vehicle often suffer from "tunnel vision" and don't notice what's going on around them as well as drivers who are paying attention to the road exclusively. The American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a similar study, with similar results.

BUT IT SHOULDN'T EVEN BE NECESSARY to rely on studies. It's common sense that a person involved in an animated conversation -- especially on a cell phone, where reception is often spotty and it's frequently difficult to understand what the other party is saying -- is less alert than he would otherwise be. Such a driver is less apt to notice changing traffic conditions, merging cars or developing situations that could require him to execute an avoidance maneuver or stop suddenly. The driving environment changes constantly; even a moment's inadvertence can have metal-crunching consequences. The old diving school mantra of Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute (IPDE) is much complicated when a driver's attention is diverted and his mind preoccupied with things unrelated to what's going on around him.

And having a phone conversation is qualitatively different from talking with a passenger in the car because the person on the other end of the phone has no way of knowing when to adjust the conversation to allow the driver to cope with moment-to-moment changes in road conditions and traffic. A passenger can see that merging car up ahead and stop talking for a moment to give the driver time to focus and adjust his course -- while the person on the other end of the cell phone will keep right on talking, often confusing or distracting the driver just enough to cause an accident.

Many of us (probably all of us) have encountered drivers embroiled in animated conversation on their cell phones -- oftentimes too addled to notice they're drifting into the next lane -- or that the light has turned green. It runs the gamut from annoying and discourteous to incredibly irresponsible and dangerous (see above).

Just ten or 15 years ago, the irritating little contraptions were a novelty of the rich -- and the self-important; now every minivan-driving hausfrau, teenage Britney Spears wannabe, college kid and shoe salesman has one glued to his or her ear seemingly at all times. And the corker is that most of these calls are mostly of the "So, what's up dude?" variety -- the fate of empires and nations is not at issue. Legitimate emergency situations that would justify the use of cell phones while driving -- to report an accident, inform the police of a robbery in progress, etc. -- probably account for fewer than five percent of all cell phone calls made in cars. Yet despite the absence of necessity that might trump safety considerations -- and notwithstanding the clear and abundant evidence that cell phone usage behind the wheel results in accident and death rates comparable to drunk driving (and is manifestly more of a threat to other drivers than not being buckled-up for safety) -- there's no crusade by "Mothers Against Cell Phones," no rolling juggernaut to force people to hang up and drive.

According to the wireless industry, there are now more than 90 million cell phones in circulation -- up from 345,000 in 1985. Their invasiveness -- and the danger they create -- will not recede anytime soon. Within five years, all but a few latter-day Luddites who refuse to be "plugged in" will remain cell-free.

But they'll be easy enough to spot.

Look for the cars that actually move as soon as the light turns green.

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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.