The Risky Business of Car Cell Phones

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Jan. 20 and thereafter
790 words

ImageINDIANAPOLIS — My definition of road rage: The way I feel when my Ford Escort and I are forced into a defensive maneuver by an Escalade whose driver is changing lanes while talking on a cell phone.

Count me in as a supporter of Sen. Rose Ann Antich-Carr1s bill to ban mobile phone use while operating a vehicle. And don1t tell me that personal anecdotes like mine are no reason to restrict your individual rights. As a society, we1ve already agreed that your liberties end when my safety is imperiled. The data are unequivocal. A motorist talking on a cell phone imperils himself and others.

Senate Bill 131 would make it a Class B infraction subject to a $1,000 fine to use a cell phone while driving, except in an emergency. It also calls on Hoosiers to report offenders to the State Police, but Antich-Carr wisely says she"s decided to delete that language and make other amendments to improve the bill"s chances.

"I"m kind of hell-bent on this," says Antich-Carr, D-Merrillville. "I"m on the highway too much. I"ve seen too much."

What she has seen, research has documented.

In 1997, Donald A. Redelmeier and Robert J. Tibshirani reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that "the risk of a collision when using a cellular telephone was four times higher than the risk when a cellular telephone was not being used." In 2001, Redelmeier and Tibshirani reviewed their work and concluded they had "underestimated the risks" due to the way they structured their research.

After the study was released, many state legislatures introduced bills to restrict cell phone use. What happened next? Interest groups questioned why lawmakers would want to target the cell phone industry when other driving behaviors, such as eating fast food or listening to the radio, were surely just as dangerous.

Their lobbying worked. Only two states and the District of Columbia have enacted cell phone bans and they are limited in scope. In 2001, New York banned hand-held cell phones but not headsets. New Jersey just passed a similar ban; there, drivers can be cited only if stopped for doing something else wrong, such as running a red light. Also this month, the District of Columbia banned talking on hand-held cell phones, punishable by a $100 fine.

Sen. Antich-Carr"s bill would apply to headset and hand-held phones. That"s good because more cell phone accidents occur during conversation than while answering or dialing. This is a problem every bit as serious as drunken driving.

In a study published just last year, researchers at the University of Utah compared the performance of drivers who were legally intoxicated with those conversing on cell phones. The study examined total accidents, brake onset time, braking force, speed, following distance and recovery time (the time it takes to recover speed lost during braking).

While both groups of drivers performed differently on driving simulators than they did during baseline testing, the researchers said, "when controlling for driving difficulty and time on task, cell phone drivers may actually exhibit greater impairments (i.e. more accidents and less responsive driving behavior) than legally intoxicated drivers."

Furthermore, "these data call into question driving regulations that prohibit hand-held cell phones and permit hands-free cell phones because no significant differences were found in the impairments to driving caused by these two modes of cellular communications."

Here1s why. It1s the cognitive activity — the thinking — that causes the chief distraction. Try driving while multiplying large numbers in your head. Can1t do it. Yet that1s a much closer analogy to cell phone use than eating a sandwich or listening to the radio.

In fact, a University of Rhode Island analysis of eye movements of drivers using cell phones found they experienced a limited field of view and decreased alertness. Their "tunnel vision" continued after cell phone use ended, no doubt because the drivers continued to think about the conversation.

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There1s one more argument that will be used against Antich1s bill: that the economic benefits of cell phones in the car outweigh the risk.

Actually, it1s a wash. Harvard University1s Joshua Cohen found the benefits of a complete cell phone ban — measured by reduced medical costs, reduced property damage and what people would be willing to pay to avoid pain and suffering — amount to $43 billion a year. That1s about the same as the value of the banned calls.

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Antich-Carr1s bill would take away convenience, not liberty. It forces Hoosiers to do what we should have done without government prompting: Cease irresponsible behavior that endangers others.



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