Wednesday, June 27, 2001

The Cell Phone Driving Ban

Congratulations to the State Of New York, winner of the competition for Feel Good Legislation of the Year. They win it because their legislature has cleverly approved a new law making it illegal to use your cell phone while driving your car, unless you buy one of those hands-free attachments.

This is nothing but Feel Good Legislation because it was passed based solely on emotion and popular opinion. A few people who have lost family members in auto accidents where the driver happened to be using a cell phone lobbied the politicos to make it illegal and, backed by some survey that told them that 85% of the public wanted the legislation, they passed it.

It’s sad that those people lost their lives, but what’s sadder is that the lawmakers have ignored the research that shows that cell phone use is responsible for a very small percentage of car accidents.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently reported that, in a study of tens of thousands of vehicular accidents, cell phones could be blamed in only 1.5% of auto crashes. That means that the New York legislature has acted against a cause that has nothing to do with the effect 98.5% of the time! That’s good lawmaking, isn’t it?

The AAA research showed that distractions outside the car are responsible for 30% of the metal-crunching moments and other occupants are blamed for another 10%. Also rated higher: adjusting the air conditioning!

I’m sure that a couple of kids somewhere died this year when a piece of gum got lodged in their throats and they couldn’t breathe. But no one was so ludicrous as to suggest banning chewing gum, were they?

Note that there is no legislation on the books banning you from doing any of the following while driving (but which we have all seen other drivers do): reading a newspaper, putting on makeup, changing your clothes, shaving (!), checking your schedule in your Palm Pilot, or any number of other activities. They’re not specifically legislated against because they are covered by the laws already on the books which ban reckless driving! Thus, this cell phone law is redundant at best.

Ironically, the man who will turn this bill into a law with a stroke of his pen will be a governor who can chat away as much as he likes on his cell phone, because he has someone else on the public payroll to drive the car for him!

The truth is that cell phone technology is still relatively new -- it has only exploded in the last several years -- and we’re still getting used to it. As the use of cell phones expands, more and more of us will be able to use them as part of our multitasking lifestyle.

I’ll bet that when the first radio was put in a car, someone suggested that it would be too much of a distraction to operate and you should only do so when the car was stopped. Of course, now we know that when you change the station on your car radio you are committing an act that is hazardous only to my broadcasting career -- so maybe it should be outlawed!

New York is not going to be alone in taking this step, I promise. Every other legislature will be pressured to follow suit. What I’d like to see is some money committed to studying the fallout from the statute -- and, in a few years, if the accident rate hasn’t dropped dramatically, let’s repeal the law!

That will never happen, because common sense is no longer permitted to rule the day. They’ll find another scapegoat to take the place of the cell phone.

We’d better start shutting down drive-thru windows at fast-food places, because you’re just going to try to eat that food while driving, aren’t you? How distracting! Then we’ll have to remove all but the driver’s seat, because you insist on carrying on an intense conversation with a passenger, thus taking your mind off the task at hand -- not to mention the danger inherent when a kid is in the back seat babbling away!

How many accidents occur every winter because the driver has to take their eyes off the road to search for that rear defroster button? I’ll bet the number is well over a dozen, so let’s ban that, too!

Supporters of the new law say it will only make you use your cell phone with a hands-free attachment, thus freeing up both of your hands to be on the steering wheel, "where they belong."

Unfortunately, this is not how Americans really drive. Go ahead and do a random visual survey tomorrow morning and see how many of your fellow commuters keep both hands on the wheel at all times in that "10 and 2" position (actually, experts now say that "10 and 2" is dangerous, because the airbag might blow your elbows out -- instead, you should be at 4:23 and 7:19, adjusted for your time zone and daylight saving time).

But the reality is that most of us drive with one arm out the window, or on the manual gear shift knob, or on the travel mug, or wherever. For smokers, the car is one of the few refuges where they can carry on their habit, and that involves using one hand or the other to bring the cigarette to their lips -- not to mention the mental effort involved in operating the lighter!

So if it’s okay to do all those things with your hand, what is the problem with holding the phone to your ear? Is that the distraction, or is it the act of conversing that’s the problem? Because if simply talking-and-listening is the real problem, then the hands-free argument doesn’t hold up -- you’re still having the conversation!

Here’s the real bottom line. There are those of us who can do more than one thing at a time, and there are those who can’t. If you’re one of those who knows that you can’t drive and use a handheld cell phone simultaneously, then don’t -- but leave the rest of us alone!!

As New York Assemblyman Brian Kolb said when he was bold enough to be one of only 19 who voted against the bill, "We seem to be reacting to polls more than relying on scientific evidence. We can’t eliminate stupidity."

So stop passing laws designed solely to make people feel good, but without any practical proof that they’ll make our lives safer. In the meantime, I'll go check my glove compartment, where I have a fax coming in.