Caution: Total Driving Ban on Cell Use Ahead?

If you make a call while driving — even with a hands-free system — that can be just dangerous as getting behind the wheel after a few rounds with the Jose Cuervo.

That’s the take from the nonprofit National Safety Council, which this week called for a nationwide ban on the use of cell phones while driving. Cell phone use counts for 6 percent of accidents, the NSC said, referencing a study by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis. Translated, that means 636,000 crashes, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year, with a $43 billion financial impact.

Traffic safety laws are left up to the individual states to determine and John Ulczycki, the NSC’s executive director of communications and public affairs, said he would like all 50 to standardize on a complete ban.

Anyone who’s been behind a meandering, lane-straddling SUV being driven by someone chatting away on a mobile phone — or worse, texting — might be glad to know that so far 23 states have put restrictions on driving while talking/texting; 18 of them ban cell use among teenagers, and six have banned phone use for all, with the exception of hands-free systems.

But the NSC says that’s simply not enough. And to the latter point, the NSC’s position on hands-free systems is that they are simply a dangerous way to lull drivers into thinking they’re being safe, when in fact a hands-free conversation can be just as distracting as using a handset.

As to be expected, CTIA disagrees. What if you’re at a standstill in L.A. traffic and need to call someone to let them know you’re running late? What if a child calls with an emergency and the parent happens to be in the car? What if you’re on the interstate driving cross-country and you need to call ahead to the next stop for something? What if you’re a businessperson sucked into an unavoidable last-minute conference call that is vital to the company’s fortunes, who might have to take that call and then pull over for the duration? Ultimately, the question becomes, should drivers be expected to take personal responsibility for their actions, or should the state determine that for them?

“We believe that safe, sensible and limited use of a cell phone when you’re behind the wheel is possible,” John Walls, CTIA’s vice president of public affairs, said in a blog post. “If someone is driving irresponsibly because of cell phone use, they should be cited for that. And under current law, they can be.”

While most people agree that cell use can be a major distraction for drivers, the debate also begs the question of how far safe driving restrictions should go in determining what constitutes a “dangerous distraction.” If hands-free conversations are dangerous, why aren’t conversations with people in the car with you considered to be? Or why not target zoning out to a book on tape? Or corralling fighting children in the backseat? Myriad activities, from changing a radio station to looking over at the person in the passenger seat, have the capability of distracting a driver for that one second necessary to get into an accident. Perhaps that’s why the auto insurance industry in this country is doing so well, even amid economic downtimes.


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