By Kristen R. Brown
I think it’s pretty safe to say that if you own a cellphone and drive a car on a regular basis, you have probably talked on the phone while driving. In fact, I would venture that if you are under age 25, it’s also pretty safe to say that you have also composed and sent text messages while driving. I know that I have personally mastered the challenging art of driving a manual transmission and talking on the phone at the same time. One of my friends is even more creative than I am: she has apparently become quite talented at using her elbows in an effort to guide the steering wheel in her manual Subaru. Texting…well, that is where I draw the line. Managing the steering wheel, forming coherent statements using the tiny buttons, and paying attention to the road are a bit much for my personal taste, but I feel like I may be in the minority among my friends.
Despite what seems like a common practice by most people of my acquaintance, talking and/or texting while driving is actually against the law in many jurisdictions. In some states, like Washington, talking on a hand-held device and texting are only secondary offenses – meaning you can only be fined if you are pulled over for some other offense. In other jurisdictions, like the District of Columbia, talking on a hand-held device and texting are primary offenses – meaning that you can be fined just for being caught doing one of those acts. (In Virginia, for those of you who were curious, only texting is an offense for most drivers, and it is a secondary offense at that.)
Last summer, a report from the National Highway Traffic Administration revealed that cell phone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002. Furthermore, the report revealed that hand-free sets don’t necessarily eliminate the risk, since it is the conversation itself – not holding the phone – that poses the danger. In fact, according to the report, “motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.”
However, the dangers posed by cell phones is far from settled. According to Katherine Mangu-Ward, a senior editor at Reason magazine, “the facts do suggest that the rise of the killer cellphone — and the corresponding need for government intervention — has been exaggerated.” In fact, a new Highway Loss Data Institute study reveals that in jurisdictions with hand-held phone bans, there have been no reductions in crashes. Furthermore, according to Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, even if cell phones do pose a risk, it is difficult to enforce the laws such that people will actually be concerned about being penalized. According to Ms. McCartt, after New York imposed a ban, cell-phone usage decreased for the period immediately after the ban was imposed but this effect was short-lasting. Around one year after the law took effect, cell phone usage had bounced back.
In light of all these facts: what should the solution be to this issue? It is clear that despite the existence of cellphone and texting laws, people still talk on their cellphones and text while driving – even in jurisdictions where such actions are primary offenses. It is also clear that only allowing hands-free devices in an effort to mitigate the situation is not necessarily effective. But, if it is the conversation itself that poses the risk, why is a cell phone conversation any different than having a conversation with a fellow passenger? Will that too need to be regulated to make the roads safer?
Like the policy-makers in this country, I don’t have a solution to this problem. But, I am interested in hearing others’ opinion on the matter. Assuming that cell phones do pose a danger to others on the road, what regulations, if any, should be imposed by local governments? Should the federal government get involved? Is any difference – however slight – better than none?