..Steve Seepersaud..

Cell Phone Laws Not Enough

When drivers cross into New York State, one of the first things to greet them is a black and white sign:


On July 1, 2001, New York passed a law requiring drivers to use hands-free cell phones. This led other states to consider making similar moves. While it's comforting to think of drivers having two hands on the wheel instead of one, a cell phone law won't put us on the fast track to road safety.

Drivers need to bring common sense into the car with them.

Consider the following findings from a study conducted at the University of Utah. Researchers found that people talking on the phone were twice as likely to miss traffic signals, and took longer to respond to signals they did detect. It didn't matter whether a driver used a headset or went hand-held. The act of talking on the phone was a significant distraction.

"Our data suggest that legislative initiatives that restrict hand-held devices but permit hands-free devices are not likely to reduce interference from the phone conversation, because the interference is, in this case, due to central attentional processes," the researchers said.

Three months after New York's cell phone law took effect, hand-held cell phone use among a group of drivers observed dropped by 50 percent, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). Search New York State's Internet site and you won't find much of any statistics telling how well the law is working. But the IIHS study suggests the hand-held cell phone ban actualy caused drivers to comply.

However, cell phones can cause a number of problems on the road, even if drivers are using headsets. For instance, many people look down, taking their eyes off the road, when dialing the phone. Looking for phone numbers can be distracting and dangerous. A motorcyclist died in 1999 after being hit by a driver who was looking for a dropped cell phone.

I consider myself a good driver. And I enjoy talking on the phone as much as anyone else. Several months ago, I almost caused an accident even while wearing a headset. How did that happen? I nearly rear-ended someone at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza while trying to read an e-mail message my girlfriend sent to the cell phone. I got lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that I wouldn't get into a crash because I was traveling at a very low speed. After that incident, I used the phone in the car a lot less.

Hopefully an episode like that, or even worse, won't be needed to scare drivers straight. It may already be happening, as one of every 20 accidents involve a driver on a cell phone, according to Harvard University researchers.

Police departments and cell phone companies are trying to encourage safe cell phone use. A radio ad campaign is trying to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. More of this needs to be done. And drivers need to get the message. Cell phone laws are necessary mainly because people can't be trusted to use restraint and common sense.

I do wish there were laws targeting those drivers who put on makeup, or try to navigate with a cheeseburger in one hand and a large soda in the other.

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© 2003 Steve Seepersaud. Reprinted with permission.

Links to previous "Tech Talk" columns:
Looking for Love Online
Too Dependent on Technology?
Internet Help for Fishing