Beware of the Cellular Keystone Cops

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One day soon, you may be pulled over and ticketed for using acell phone in your car. Hundreds of bills have been introduced instate and municipal legislatures across America in recent yearsproposing to make talking on a cellular device while driving acrime, although few have passed thus far. And even the feds aretaking an interest with the House Transportation Subcommittee onHighways and Transit holding a hearing this week on the issue.

With cell phone use exploding in recent years (there are over115 million wireless subscribers today) and quickly coming to beconsidered an essential component of everyday life, it is notsurprising that these little devices would eventually start tocause some problems. But just how big of a problem does cell phoneuse in cars really pose? The results may surprise you.

The AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety has released the results ofa new study by the University of North Carolina Highway SafetyResearch Center that analyzed over 32,000 traffic accidents causedby distracted drivers to determine what factors contributed tothose accidents. Among the top causes were: outside objects,persons, or events (29.4% of accidents surveyed); adjusting theradio, cassette, or CD player (11.4%); and distractions caused byother occupants in the vehicle (10.9%). The less significant causeslisted by the survey were: moving objects in the vehicle (4.3%);other objects or devices in vehicle (2.9%); adjusting vehicle /climate controls (2.8%); eating and drinking in the car (1.7%);using or dialing on a cell phone (1.5%); and smoking-relateddistractions (0.9%).

These findings reveal that public policy in this case is beingdriven by perceptions, not facts. Because many of us are annoyed bypeople who use cell phones while they drive, or fear they may placeus at greater risk than they actually do, policy makers areproposing bans on cell phone use in cars. This is not to say,however, that using a cell phone while driving does not pose somedegree of risk. And this threat, critics argue, is only likely togrow as cell phone use grows. But, thankfully, while newtechnologies often introduce new problems into society, still newertechnologies typically come along to solve those problems.

For example, "hands-free" cellular devices, which employ an earpiece and a clip-on microphone, are already on the market and beingwidely used by motorists. One-button speed-dialing, an option onalmost all phones today, enables drivers to place calls withouthaving to dial a series of numbers. Better yet, voice-activatedcalling is right around to corner. This will allow drivers tosimply say "call home" and let the phone do the rest. And automanufacturers are currently integrating "on-board" communicationsservices into many of their new vehicles. These new technologieswill enable everyone to abide by the sensible old "10 & 2" rulethat our high school driving instructors taught us, allowing us tokeep both hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road at alltimes.

Imposing burdensome restrictions on cell phone use in cars,therefore, is unnecessary and may actually cost lives by having theunintended consequence of discouraging drivers from carrying a cellphone in their car. With an estimated 118,000 emergency callsplaced by cell phone users every day, the life-saving applicationsof cell phones are well established. If a ban was to discouragedrivers from carrying phones in their cars, the costs would likelyfar outweigh the benefits.

On a more practical note, it difficult to understand how such aban would be enforced. Where will policymakers draw the line? Sincesnacking behind the wheel and playing with your car stereo are moredistracting and dangerous than cell phone use, should legislatorsban those activities first? What about arguing with you spouse orkids in the car? Should that be policed? And what about the CBradios truckers still use?

There's a far simpler way to approach this problem from a publicpolicy perspective: Don't try to ban technologies (cell phones,radios, CBs, etc.) or specific activities (conversations, singing,smoking, etc.) inside the cabin of an automobile. Instead, simplyenforce those laws already on the books dealing with reckless ornegligent driving. If a driver is weaving in and out of trafficlanes, or posing a serious threat to others on the road for anyreason, they should be pulled over and probably ticketed if theinfraction is serious enough.

In conclusion, a degree of patience and humility is necessary bypolicymakers. It is impossible to legislate a 100% risk-freesociety into existence. Technology is quickly solving a problem itcreated. Turning our nation's law enforcement officers into acellular SWAT team in the meantime will only deter them frompolicing more dangerous activities while threatening to furthererode our personal liberties with little benefit to show forit.