With his signature, New York Gov. George Pataki signed into law Thursday a bill banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Bills banning cell phone use in cars are nothing new – similar bans have been proposed in 41 other states, but all to no avail. In our own Legislature, the bill never even made it out of committee. The desire to restrict cell phone usage appears to be part of a national backlash against the devices that now invade our lives. The bill clearly carries good intentions, and the sentiment behind it is something everyone can appreciate. It most likely would survive a challenge in the courts, since driving is a privilege, not a right. However, this bill is an imperfect solution to an annoying problem. More drivers should simply have the common sense to not use cell phones while driving. However, New York can serve as a testing ground to see if a ban actually reduces accidents.
Studies disagree about cell phones leading to serious distractions while driving. A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that a person who used a cell phone while driving was four times more likely to have an accident than a non-using driver was. However, AAA contradicted this with a study of 32,303 traffic accidents over four years and found that only 42 of the accidents could be linked to cell phone usage. AAA did admit that cell phones were “absolutely a distraction,” but it still made the case on how often they actually caused crashes. The data are not clear. However, evidence appears to favor the fact that cell phones can be slightly distracting.
The question must also be asked if cell phones are more dangerous than putting on make-up, flipping through radio stations, eating, daydreaming or talking to a passenger. Additionally, it seems unclear what the New York legislature is trying to ban. The state will still allow hands-free or speaker phones to be used. New York could be trying to ban drivers from fumbling around with small cell phones, or they could want to prevent mental distractions. The bill should have been more consistent regarding what sort of actions it was trying to ban. However, as the above list shows, many actions occur in cars that can be both physically and mentally distracting.
The state is clearly trying to protect its citizens. When many people are on the road, it only takes one distracted driver to cause an enormous amount of harm to others. When mandatory seatbelt laws were enacted, many fussed about the supposed restrictions that it brought on, but now most everyone seems to think it’s good idea to wear seatbelts. If it can be shown that cell phones lead to higher accidents, it would become a public safety issue, and New York would have every right to enact a ban. As it stands, the ban could be premature.
In addition to the ban of cell phones, the New York law also requires the state to analyze the cause of accidents over the next four years to see if their ban does its job. Other states need to keep a close eye on this matter and see what results. If New York can prove its point, then it is up to other state legislatures to carry the banner. New York legislators see that it is worthwhile to ban cell phones, even if it prevents only one accident. Only time will tell if their actions are justified.