Wireless not tireless

Posted: Dec 04, 2002 12:00 AM
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 answer. 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.