Calling all cars:Shut up and drive

Last month, Mothers Against Drunk Driving approached the Minnesota Legislature with a request to lower the legal blood alcohol limit from .10 to .08. That measure, they say, could save 40 lives a year in the state. What, then, should we make of last week’s announcement in the New England Journal of Medicine? It says using a cellular phone while driving quadruples your chances of having an accident. That risk, the researchers pointed out, is identical to that of driving with a .10 blood alcohol content.
It apparently takes science to confirm the obvious. This research merely gives credibility to the conventional wisdom of drivers everywhere: Cell phones are a menace to safety on the roads. The familiar symptoms of the cell-phone driver range from benign — failure to proceed at a green light — to perilous — abrupt, unsignaled lane changes. Almost every driver has an anecdote to tell, of swerving to avoid a near miss only to look over and see the other motorist chatting obliviously on a cell phone. “Hey Mom, guess where I’m calling from?” Crash.
Certainly cell phones are not the only distraction in cars. Each morning we see fellow commuters staring not at the road, but into rear-view mirrors to shave or apply makeup. Radios, tape decks or CD players cause us all to look away now and then. Even the simple act of drinking a cup of coffee takes at least one hand off the wheel. But none of these actions have as much potential to capture the driver’s attention and emotion as phone calls. The study found that stressful calls — arguments in particular — lead to even higher accident rates. Furthermore, drivers with hands-free speaker phones fared no better.
The rapid proliferation of cell phones in recent years makes them a particularly pressing concern. With dozens of communications companies offering newer, better, cheaper services, the number of phones on the road has grown by 1,685 percent since 1986. In 1995, U.S. cell phone sales exceeded the national birthrate. By the year 2000, 80 million Americans will own the palm-sized walkie-talkies. Just imagine that many new drunk drivers on our streets.
Ironically, cell phones’ big selling point is their appeal to drivers. Got a flat? Just call the tow truck. Stuck in a snowbank in the middle of a blizzard? Good thing you have that cell phone to call for help. But note, please, that none of these calls occur while in motion. In fact, the study found that 39 percent of the 799 drivers surveyed used their cell phones to report their own accidents.
So what can be done? We could ban driving while on the phone. But questions of liability and enforcement, even constitutionality, would stall any legislative action for years. Not to mention the fact that it would be profoundly disturbing to have the government decide where, when and how we can use phones. Cellular services have already launched responsible phoning PR initiatives, but they’ll have about as much impact as Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign. The only way to make the roads safe is to go after the drivers themselves. Cell phones in cars need to be as vilified as stick-up Garfield dolls or “baby on board” signs. It shouldn’t take a law, or even a scientist, to tell us that talking on the phone while driving is dangerous, deadly and just plain dumb.