Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2002 / 29 Kislev, 5763
Debra J. Saunders
Wireless not tireless
On a Monday, a colleague and I are cruising
across the Bay Bridge at a handy clip -- about 50
miles an hour -- when we see a woman driving alone
in a car in the center lane; she takes out a thick file
folder, flips to a few flagged pages, combs through
her address book, then punches in numbers on her
Not to worry, she had a hands-free phone.
You'd think that the type of phone wouldn't matter,
but locales that ban nonemergency cell-phone calls
from cars, such as New York, allow drivers to use
Here's what really frosts me about clueless drivers
like this file-happy commuter: She makes the rest of
us look bad. By the rest of us, I mean we car- loving
First Amendment aficionados who drive fast while
chatting merrily on our cell phones -- and without
accident, thank you very much.
Now there's this new study by Harvard University
Center for Risk Analysis that estimates that some
2,600 deaths occur annually among people who dial
and drive. That 2,600 is not a hard number; it's
extrapolated from new cell-phone use data. But for
those who want to outlaw behavior of which they do
not approve, that number is real.
When news of the study was released, California
Highway Patrol Commissioner Dwight "Spike"
Hemlick announced that he's ready to consider
supporting an anti-cellular ban while driving. "Would it
be a complete ban or to require the hands-free?" he
asked rhetorically. He doesn't know the answer.
It's not clear that hands-free phones are safer.
Another big study found that hands-free phone
conversations were just as distracting as those on
In fact, eating food can be more distracting. An
American Automobile Association study of crashes
caused by distractions, found that cell phones
caused 1.5 percent of the accidents, while other
factors scored higher -- adjusting the sound system
(11.4 percent), another occupant (10.9 percent) and
eating or drinking (1.7 percent).
Kimberly Kuo of the Cellular Telecommunications &
Internet Association noted that Americans aren't
likely to ban other causes of driver distraction.
"You're never going to outlaw drive-thru (fast-food
restaurants) and Starbucks, " Kuo noted.
Even the Harvard study researcher, Joshua Cohen,
doesn't believe his findings should prompt states to
ban nonemergency cell-phone calls. "This is not a
black-and-white issue," Cohen said. "There are more
than 100 million people who use cell phones and
they derive substantial benefit (from their phones) . . .
and that needs to be taken into account."
Besides, if California wants to go after dangerous
drivers, it ought to get tougher with uninsured
motorists before it turns cell-phone callers into
criminals. (The CHP found that some 20 percent of
fatal accidents in early 2002 involved uninsured
Everyone has a story about some driver who did
something stupid while yakking on a cell phone. That
explains why some 87 percent of New Yorkers
supported the law to ban handheld cell phone use by
There's this visceral hatred of people who drive and
talk on the phone -- even, one would presume,
among the very people who do it.
But when lawmakers decide it is their job to outlaw
foolishness, sensible people can't make sensible
choices. Forget making that phone call while you're
sitting in a traffic jam.
The saying goes, "You can't outlaw stupidity." But
when lawmakers make it their job to outlaw stupid
behavior, the unintended consequence may be the
outlawing of smart choices sensibly made.
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