Earth calling Berkeley: MYOB

Posted: Jul 31, 2000 12:00 AM
California can no longer claim to be the state of laid-back acceptance. These days, if people do something that the New Puritans in California politics don't like, the Puritans try to outlaw it -- or study it out of existence. Witness a vote by the Berkeley City Council this week asking the state to require the California Highway Patrol to keep records on cell phone use in accident reports. How I wish Berkeley pols understood (a) that their job is to govern Berkeley, not the world, and (b) that city councils should deal with serious problems first, and the trivial later, not vice versa. Consider that the street person situation is so out-of-control that it isn't safe walking through parts of Berkeley, which should be a problem for the Berkeley City Council. Then, note the council's ability to hone in on what could be the least serious threat to car safety. This newspaper has reported on anecdotal reports of people yakking on their phones and driving terribly, but I have yet to meet anyone who was in an accident with a cell-phone user. Not so when it comes to cars driven by uninsured and/or unlicensed drivers. In California, a lucky day is the day you're in an accident with someone who has insurance. According to Department of Motor Vehicle researcher David DeYoung, drivers without licenses are four to five times as "likely to responsible for a fatal car crash." Then, there's the uninsured motorist problem. As it turns out, the CHP doesn't even keep statistics on how many uninsured drivers cause accidents. Yet, data indicate that uninsured drivers are worse drivers than licensed drivers, and are more likely to be in accidents. Lyn Hunstad of the California Department of Insurance found that 44.6 percent of motorists involved in bodily-injury accidents weren't insured, and the CHP has estimated that it gave 34.2 percent of its citations to uninsured drivers. The state estimates that some 20 percent of drivers are not insured. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Deputy Administrator Rosalyn Millman says the evidence on phone use is anecdotal, but she added it's clear cell phones distract, and distracted drivers are responsible for a quarter of all accidents. Folks should be careful if and when they dial and drive. But there is no established link. The most oft-cited study linking phoning to driving impairment involved 15 drivers. Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean argues that since her constituents have complained to her, and state legislators want more information before banning cell phone use by drivers, it was the council's duty to vote as it did. She pointedly argued that the CHP vote was different than a resolution calling for Los Angeles to drop charges against former Symbionese Libertion Army alumna and suspected would-be police bomber Sara Jane Olson. She's called the resolution "foolishness." She added: "What does it hurt to have a little box on the form which you can check?" In that spirit, why not have a bunch of little boxes -- one for reading the paper, another for makeup application? Add more boxes for uninsured drivers and unlicensed drivers. That would tell statisticians which category is most dangerous. Let the CHP do a broad lifestyle questionnaire, find out if bran improves driving. As AT&T Wireless VP Steve Crosby argued, "If you legislate, you have to legislate every act in the car that is distracting. You have to say that talking to someone is distracting, listening to music is distracting." So, why not study every distraction? I am not advocating dialing and driving, but I will say that given a choice between licensed drivers with cell phones and unlicensed drivers without, I'll take my chances with the cells. The bandwagon of cell phone prosecutors has become too crowded for my taste.