Cell phone driving bans only a matter of time

July 21, 2009

In the blink of an eye, I could become a killer.

You could, too.

Not intentionally, of course, but a killer just the same.

In the back of our minds, we’ve always known it. But the news this week has focused attention on the dangers of talking, texting and e-mailing while driving.

Two consumer groups, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, released documents Tuesday showing that since 2003, federal officials have suppressed research showing the dangers of drivers using either hand-held or hands-free cell phones.

Officials were concerned about angering Congress, even though cell phone distraction was thought to have caused 240,000 accidents and 955 fatalities in 2002.

“We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up,” Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety told The New York Times.

Of course, it doesn’t take a scientist to know that talking, texting and e-mailing while you’re driving could be dangerous.

It’s common sense, even if we hate to admit it.

In our multi-tasking world, it’s just too tempting to use drive time to make business calls or chat with friends.

Who, even while barreling down the highway, can resist the blinking red light of a BlackBerry daring you to look at your latest e-mail?

It’s an addiction. I know, because I’m an addict.

This is a good week to think about highway safety, and not just because of news reports.

On Monday, the Kentucky State Police launched Blue Lights Across the Bluegrass to crack down on dangerous driving. The campaign, which runs through July 31, is focused on Fayette and 36 other counties that have had four or more of Kentucky’s 405 traffic fatalities this year.

State police say 85 percent of Kentucky traffic accidents are caused by driver distraction of some kind.

But Kentucky troopers, like those in most other states, can’t do much about cell phone-distracted drivers.

Only five states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, although 21 states ban it for novice drivers.

No state bans drivers from using hands-free cell phones, even though studies show that the mental distraction of a conversation is almost as great as the physical distraction of operating a phone.

Only 14 states prohibit drivers from texting.

Kentucky bans only cell-phone use by school bus drivers. Plus, it is one of eight states that prohibit local governments from passing their own stricter laws.

Reps. Reginald Meeks and Tom Burch of Louisville have introduced legislation for years that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

“We’ve gotten hearings, but it has never gone anywhere,” Meeks said Tuesday. His interest in the issue was prompted by “two near mishaps I had while talking on the cell phone,” he said.

Meeks said some lawmakers have objected to limiting drivers’ “freedom.”

It’s the same lame argument that slowed the adoption of common-sense seat belt laws and made it legal for people to ride motorcycles without wearing helmets.

The New York Times reported that 170 bills were introduced in state legislatures this year to address distracted driving, including cell phone use. Fewer than 10 of those bills became law, in part because lawmakers like to talk on their cell phones while they drive.

But I suspect it’s only a matter of time before things change.

Remember when drunken driving was treated with a wink and a nod? It took high-profile campaigns by Mothers against Drunk Driving and other groups to make it socially and legally unacceptable.

What will it take to make us acknowledge the danger of gadget-impaired driving?

“Unfortunately, it might take a severe, highly visible accident,” Meeks said. “But why should we have to wait for somebody else to die?”