On a Monday, a colleague and I are cruising across the Bay
Bridge at a handy clip -- about 50 miles an hour -- when we see a woman
driving alone in a car in the center lane. She takes out a thick file
folder, flips to a few flagged pages, combs through her address book, then
punches in numbers on her cell phone.
Not to worry, she had a hands-free phone.
You'd think that the type of phone wouldn't matter, but locales
that ban non-emergency cell-phone calls from cars, such as New York, allow
drivers to use hands-free phones.
Here's what really frosts me about clueless drivers like this
file-happy commuter: She makes the rest of us look bad. By the rest of us, I
mean we car-loving First Amendment aficionados who drive fast while chatting
merrily on our cell phones -- and without accident, thank you very much.
Now there's this new study by Harvard University Center for Risk
Analysis that estimates that some 2,600 deaths occur annually among people
who dial and drive. That 2,600 is not a hard number -- it's extrapolated
from new cell-phone use data. But for those who want to outlaw behavior of
which they do not approve, that number is real.
When news of the study was released, California Highway Patrol
Commissioner Dwight "Spike" Hemlick announced that he's ready to consider
supporting an anti-cellular ban while driving. "Would it be a complete ban
or to require the hands-free?" he asked rhetorically. He doesn't know the
It's not clear that hands-free phones are safer. Another big
study found that hands-free phone conversations were just as distracting as
those on handheld phones.
In fact, eating food can be more distracting. An American
Automobile Association study of crashes caused by distractions found that
cell phones caused 1.5 percent of the accidents, while other factors scored
higher -- adjusting the sound system (11.4 percent), another occupant (10.9
percent) and eating or drinking (1.7 percent).
Kimberly Kuo of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet
Association noted that Americans aren't likely to ban other causes of driver
distraction. "You're never going to outlaw drive-thru (fast-food
restaurants) and Starbucks, " Kuo noted.
Even the Harvard study researcher, Joshua Cohen, doesn't believe
his findings should prompt states to ban non-emergency cell-phone calls.
"This is not a black-and-white issue," Cohen said. "There are more than 100
million people who use cell phones, and they derive substantial benefit
(from their phones) ... and that needs to be taken into account."
Besides, if California wants to go after dangerous drivers, it
ought to get tougher with uninsured motorists before it turns cell-phone
callers into criminals. (The CHP found that some 20 percent of fatal
accidents in early 2002 involved uninsured drivers.)
Everyone has a story about some driver who did something stupid
while yakking on a cell phone. That explains why some 87 percent of New
Yorkers supported the law to ban handheld cell phone use by drivers.
There's this visceral hatred of people who drive and talk on the
phone -- even, one would presume, among the very people who do it.
But when lawmakers decide it is their job to outlaw foolishness,
sensible people can't make sensible choices. Forget making that phone call
while you're sitting in a traffic jam.
The saying goes, "You can't outlaw stupidity." But when
lawmakers make it their job to outlaw stupid behavior, the unintended
consequence may be the outlawing of smart choices sensibly made.