Cell bound

My first mobile phone was the size of a shoebox, with a traditional handset complete with cord. Because it was cumbersome, not to mention expensive to use, I saved it for emergencies like roadside breakdowns and calling ahead for pizza.

My, how things have changed. Today’s cell phones slip easily into a jeans pocket and we can gab for hundreds of minutes each month without breaking the bank.

And therein lies the problem, respondents to a recent University of Michigan study say. Too many people use those anytime minutes while cruising down the road, leading to inattentive driving that many believe endangers other motorists. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents say states should pass laws banning cell phone use while driving, even though 69 percent are themselves cell phone users.

It’s easy to agree with those respondents. We’ve all cursed in frustration when a motorist, obliviously talking on a cell phone, cut us off or forced us to slam on the brakes. Then there are numerous studies showing that cell phone distraction – even when using hands-free systems – causes thousands of deaths and injuries each year. Some scientists even claim that chatty motorists drive worse than a drunk driver blowing 0.08.

But there’s also research from Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis that says the possibility of death from cell phone use is rather small, approximately 13 per million drivers. Not to mention the fact that banning cell phone use while driving is just one more government intrusion into our private lives. What’s next, a law against listening to talk radio?

But perhaps the most compelling reason not to pass more laws limiting cell phone use is that all states already have reckless driving laws. Presumably the bad driving behavior exhibited by cell phone users would qualify for a reckless driving citation, so why add more laws to the books? Why not just enforce the laws already in place, especially when the penalties are so much greater? The maximum fine for using a cell phone while driving in New York, for example, is $100. A reckless driving citation in Nevada might bring up to a $5,000 fine and a 12-month prison sentence.

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For years, truckers have competently multi-tasked behind the wheel – talking on the CB, tuning the radio, sipping coffee – while maintaining enviable safety records. Arguably all of these activities are distractions that could impact driving ability, but it would be insanity to regulate them all. If truckers or four-wheelers allow any distraction – cell phones, onboard computers, talkative passengers – to cause them to drive unsafely, the solution is to enforce existing laws, not create new ones.