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They’re out to get you, these people who talk on cell phones while driving, and it’s not just various studies that convince me every state in the union ought to pass tough laws prohibiting this selfish, reckless, life-endangering amusement. It’s the evidence of my own eyes.
Just in the past couple of weeks, I have witnessed three instances of erratic driving, taken a look at the driver and seen the person yakking away with a handheld cell phone pressed blissfully to the ear.
On the most recent occasion, I noticed in my rearview mirror that a car behind me was weaving about crazily, and then saw, when we came to a stop at a red light, that its driver was talking on his phone. That wasn’t nearly the start I had several years ago when a car came merrily zooming toward me, going the wrong way on a one-way street. The driver gave me a friendly wave of his hand as passed me within a whisker of collision. He was chattering on a cell phone and laughing up a storm.
Laughter is not my reaction to the situation or to stories on studies of this phenomenon, one telling us that an average of 10 percent of the drivers at any given time are talking on cell phones, and another indicating that their risk of being in an accident disabling to them or others is something like four times higher than it would be if they kept that phone tucked neatly away.
A study completed last year put the issue in dramatic perspective. Based largely on simulated driving exercises, it concluded that driving while talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk. You don’t keep your eye on what’s going on about you. You don’t hit the brakes quickly when you need to, or swerve out of the way when that’s necessary. Your reaction time is laggard to an extent that can be and sometimes is fatal, not just a nuisance or a scare.
Some note that drivers have all kinds of distractions besides cell phones, and that’s true, just as it’s true that 80 percent of auto accidents happen within seconds of a driver being distracted, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But what obviously wasn’t the case some years ago when people first started using cell phones is true today, an article on this study says: The phones are the most common distraction. Number one. Top of the list.
All of this says to me that it’s not enough that a reported four states and a number of localities have enacted laws limiting use of cell phones while driving. All states should have these laws, and, in my view, they should be as strictly enforced as drunk-driving laws and nearly as punitive — strong legal statements that you are in plenty of trouble if you get caught.
I’ve heard the contrary arguments, and they strike as essentially wrongheaded, such as the insistence that you’ve got to let people talk on cell phones because it could be necessary in case of a serious emergency. Sure. It could be. And in such an instance, do it; laws should make allowance for this. Maybe, too, a driver has a serious need to communicate with someone and it falls short of an emergency. Fine. Pull over, stop and make the call.
It’s also said that the laws can’t be enforced, but then, of course, no law is perfect in its enforcement — we still have drunk drivers on the road, even though enforcement has picked up dramatically over the years. But some people will stop using the phones simply because they always try to obey the law, and others from fear of being caught, especially if traffic cops are made to take the offense seriously. The idea that you can’t tell if someone is using a mobile phone — at least the handheld sort — is nonsense. Even with my untrained eye, I see it all the time.
We kill some 40,000 people a year on our highways. Tougher laws on cell phones can reduce the number.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)