Protecting its People

It's "premature to push for federal legislation" to ban cell phone use while driving. That was according to Robert Shelton, a recent executive director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in congressional testimony. To that, we respond with a hearty, "Oh, bullfeathers, Robert!"

Was it premature to push for seat belts in the 1950s? And premature to try to crack down on drinking and driving in the 1980s? Of course not. It was courageous. We guess it's premature for Shelton, the nation's top highway-safety official, to summon up his courage.

But if courage was in short supply at the congressional hearings on driver distraction, hyperbole sure wasn't. According to the cell phone industry's top lobbyist, Tom Wheeler, "the wireless phone is the greatest safety tool since the development of 911." That self-serving piece of prattle is like saying the twist-off bottle cap cuts down on accidents because drivers don't have to fiddle with openers while changing lanes.

Driving while talking on cell phones is causing accidents, not preventing them.

A short drive around any city or town provides more than enough evidence for most of us that cell phone use and other forms of driver distraction are threatening the safety of anyone who ventures on or near our roads.

Don't take our word for it. Talk to the relatives and friends of Gregory Davis, Leona Greif, Marcia Nathans, Richard McKeefery, or two-year-old Morgan Pena. Each died at the hands of a driver who was chatting on the phone while steering thousands of pounds of deadly steel.

The list of victims grows ever longer. Supermodel Niki Taylor -- the 26-year-old mother of six-year-old twin boys -- had the misfortune of being added to the list of the injured last month when the driver of the car she was in leaned down to answer his phone. He plowed into a telephone pole, critically injuring Taylor.

But guys like Robert Hahn at the American Enterprise Institute tell us that the benefits of cell phones far outweigh their costs. And people refer to this organization as a think tank? Listen to their logic and see what you think.

Just what are these benefits that the American Enterprise Institute thinks outweigh accidents and deaths? In a 1999 opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times, Hahn said one benefit was the ability to summon help on a lonely highway. But aren't we a little short on logic here? How would a ban on cell phone use while driving prevent one from using the phone from the breakdown lane? Another of the benefits, according to Hahn: the convenience of being able to remind your spouse of your daughter's school play.

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Exactly what price do economists plug into their nice, clean economic models to account for the misery and tears that such outright selfishness has wrought? In his Times piece, Hahn estimated that cell phone use in cars that year would cause 10,000 serious accidents, leading to 100 fatalities.

As calls to ban cell phone use in cars increase, the cell phone industry is using the innovative delaying tactic of calling for more study. But most driver-distraction research is hopelessly flawed.

Take the recently publicized study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The AAA used data that relied in good part on postaccident interviews with drivers. Find us one person who will freely admit that he was stupid enough to be talking to his broker or ordering Chinese food instead of paying attention to the road. The AAA found very few. Big surprise.

It's human nature: You can't count on people to tell you if they've done something stupid. The only study we've seen that didn't make this mistake was published in the New England Journal of Medicine more than four years ago. Researchers checked actual phone records. Their findings are well known: Drivers are four times as likely to crash when talking on a phone -- about the same chances as a legally drunk driver has -- and three times as likely when talking on a "hands-free" phone.

Some cell phone companies are in favor of a hands-free law. (Now there's a coincidence. Taking this stand gives them a chance to sell new phones to millions of customers.) Some legislators see the hands-free option as a compromise. It's not a compromise. It's a cop-out. When you're talking on a cell phone, it's the brain that's distracted, not the hands.

The cell phone lobbyists will tell you that using a hands-free phone is the same as talking to a passenger, but it's not. We're not psychologists, but it's clear that talking on the phone while driving somehow drags you away from the here and now. It may have something to do with visualizing the person you're talking to. Drivers talking to a passenger do not stray from lane to lane; cell phone users do.

Do we trust all drivers to know when enough alcohol is enough? Of course not. Laws are necessary, since we can't trust everybody's judgment.

Our suggestion is that any proposed legislation focus on distraction; that is, the bills should ban any behavior that dangerously distracts a driver's attention. The ban should include talking on cell phones of all kinds, hands-free or not. And to answer the critics who say, "What about other distractions?" the ban should also cover surfing the Web while driving (it's coming); blow-drying one's hair while driving (we've seen it); and building a model airplane out of balsa wood while driving (just anticipating the next trend).

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If we don't take a stand soon on what gadgets ought to be in cars, we will be confronted with distractions beyond our wildest dreams. The automotive and electronics industries have plans for devices in cars that will be far more distracting than cell phones, including built-in computers that can call up e-mail and stock quotes.

We can't trust the automotive industry to show any good judgment here, because it has not shown good judgment about design in the past. A classic example is the trend to offer luxury-car buyers touch-sensitive screens to replace all the controls for radios, tape and CD players, and heating and cooling. These devices display myriad controls on a flat screen. Want to adjust the temperature? No problem. Just stare at the screen until you find the right menu selection. Make your choice. Then, on the next screen, adjust the temperature. Bingo, you're done. Too bad you had your eyes off the road for 10 seconds. Now call the wrecker.

None of us wants Big Brother controlling what we do, but we must acknowledge that the cell phone industry's primary interest is increasing sales and, especially, usage of their phones. Our government's primary charge is protecting the well-being of its citizens, not ensuring the future profits of an industry at the expense of injuries and lives.

We must insist that our government step in to ensure basic protection for those of us who need to use the roads and sidewalks. We hope that legislators will have the courage not to cave in to the powerful cell phone lobbyists and to prove to us that the needs of the people who voted them into office far outweigh those of private interests.

It's sad to think that our fate -- and maybe our lives -- is in the hands of politicians, but let's hope they have the guts to do what's right. It's our hope that every newspaper in the country will publish the results in every state where legislation is voted on. We want to know whom to vote for next time.


Tom Magliozzi
Ray Magliozzi
Co-Hosts, Car Talk on NPR

(C) 2000 The Mercury News. A version of this article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, May 13, 2001