January 29, 2009 in Idaho Voices

Cars, phoning can be deadly mix

Legislator proposes cell phone restrictions
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Radios used to be the only diversion for folks taking a drive.

They would ease back in their big, comfortable seat and listen to the latest crooner; their attention on the road. By the time drivers began installing eight-track tapes, their attention had already begun to waver. Today’s drivers have so many electronic gadgets, that it seems like paying attention to the road is merely one of the distractions.

At least that is what it seemed to me when the young gentleman in the big blue Dodge truck nearly ran me down in the Super One parking lot a couple of weeks ago … while immersed in a cell phone conversation.

For many years, drivers faced common distractions like kids jumping back and forth between seats; dripping ice cream cones; and teens fighting in the back seat. Challenges included lighting cigarettes, taking a bite of a hamburger, hanging onto a fidgety dog, or holding their drink upright between their legs.

Car makers and legislators didn’t let the American public down. First they added cigarette lighters and ashtrays to address smoking distractions. Next, they installed seatbelts to help tame the kids. Finally, drink holders included in even basic model vehicles allowed drivers to put both hands back on the wheel … most of the time at least.

Back on the music scene, AM gave way to FM, and those old eight-tracks were replaced by cassette tape decks; which were replaced by CD players. Still, not too bad. Drivers could once again, ease back in their ergonomically-designed seat, program their preferred channels for one-digit control, and listen to their favorite music; their attention once again on the road.

Except for all those other things; that almost endless array of communication accessory devices linking drivers to the outside world, including: cell phones, navigation and GPS systems, computers and televisions.

Of all these gadgets, the cell phone, commonly used by 250 million cell phone users and 80 percent of the driving public (by admission), has become the most dangerous diversion for drivers today. Ignoring the reality of danger to themselves or others, cell phone users, answer their phones, make calls and, as impossible as it seems, send text messages as they drive.

Recognizing this danger to the American public, the National Safety Council (NSC) recently called for a nationwide ban on any use of cell phones while driving. “Studies show that driving while talking on a cell phone is extremely dangerous and puts drivers at a four times greater risk of a crash,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the NSC.

NSC supported their ban request with statistics form a Harvard study. The statistics were grim: 6 percent of traffic accidents (636,000 accidents nationally) occur each year because of cell phone use; those accidents result in the injury of more than 330,000 people, and the death of 2,600.

To put those figures into perspective: 314 American servicemen and women were killed in the Iraq war last year. Statistically, for every one serviceman who lost his life fighting in Iraq, eight American men, women, and children, lost their lives because someone was using their cell phone.

For every family that received news their loved one died serving their country, eight families received news they lost a family member because someone was distracted while answering their phone or texting.

While no state has completely banned the use of cell phones by drivers, to date, six states, including Washington and California, have passed legislation prohibiting talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device. Although only Washington has banned texting while driving, many states have imposed cell-phone bans on drivers 18 and younger.

At this time, Idaho has no legislation relating to the use of cell phones, and neither the Idaho Transportation Department nor the Idaho State Police keep data about cell phone-related accidents.

However, legislators are taking a look at the issue. Idaho State Sen. Les Bock is preparing a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to talk on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device. He is preparing a second bill to ban text messaging while driving. The fine for either infraction would be about $75.

Although legislators think there is little chance for the Democratic-sponsored bill to pass in the legislature, sponsors believe the problem must be addressed in the near future.

And by the way, the United States is far behind international opinion on the subject of cell phones – call it our “cowboy mentality.” More than 50 of the most industrialized nations in the world have already banned the use of cell phones to some extent. These countries include: Canada, India, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, China, Netherlands, Chile, and Russia.

The bills are expected to be introduced this week.

Contact correspondent Mary Jane Honegger by e-mail at Honegger2@verizon.net.


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