People are buzzing about the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation to ban all cellphone use while driving, even hands-free devices.
At the heart of the debate is a 2010 chain-reaction accident in Missouri that killed a 19-year-old driver who was texting when he rammed his pickup into the back of a semi. Two school buses filled with band students on their way to Six Flags were involved in the crash. In addition to the driver who caused the crash, a 15-year-old girl died and 38 people were hurt. We've had our own examples of cellphone-related accidents here, such as the teen, high on freon, who hit and killed a pedestrian in Tinley Park in 2009 while texting and .
Not surprisingly, heavy-hitters in the wireless industry are against such a ban. Others say a ban would be unenforceable: how would a police officer know if a driver is speaking on a hands-free device or simply singing along with Margaritaville?
Some argue a ban on cellphone use is too far-reaching because our phones have become integral to our daily lives. This argument suggests regulations on technological advances should be created before the technology itself, which doesn't seem logical. Besides, drivers, for the most part, understand why laws and punishments for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol have sharpened along with our understanding of the connection between intoxication and accidents, so drivers will accept cellphone laws with a little time. In addition, drivers and passengers have adjusted just fine to wearing seat belts and putting their children in car seats even though the practices were not made mandatory nationwide until nearly 100 years after the automobile was introduced to Americans. And though we might grumble, we'll all adjust just fine to the requiring all adult backseat passengers to wear seat belts, too.
Cellphones Worse Than French Fries
The simple fact is that cellphones cause more problems for drivers than other distractions, like the radio, mascara or french fries.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw of Palm Beach County, FL, tells the Huffington Post that texting is the least dangerous of all distracted activities, but the science disagrees. Various studies have found that texting while driving causes impairment similar to driving drunk, and a study by Car and Driver found that texting while driving slowed response times considerably more than reactions of those same drivers legally drunk. The cellphones used were "text friendly" phones familiar to the drivers in the study, but they still drove better legally drunk than they did while texting.
Texting is already illegal while driving in Illinois. But what about talking? How hazardous can talking possibly be? After all, usually when there is more than one person in a car, the driver is going to talk. Sure, but in-car conversations don't carry the same level of distraction as phone calls, even with hands-free devices.
More concentration is required to carry on a conversation without visual cues; plus, cellphone calls come with additional background noise. In-car conversations are more flexible than phone calls; passengers automatically respond to changes in conditions, like if traffic becomes heavy, they've entered an unfamiliar area, or if there are sirens. Studies show that the acts of planning to speak and speaking are four times more distracting than listening, which is why conversing is much more taxing on a driver than singing along with the radio. (I don't know about you, but my in-car concerts are seldom planned).
With this in mind, graduated licensing laws that restrict cellphone use by age or years of driving experience seem rather pointless: no driver at any level of experience is immune to distractions. (In Illinois, drivers under 19 are not allowed to talk on the phone while driving).
A Question of Rights?
When I first got my driver's license, my grandfather asked me if I knew how much a car weighed. I didn't.
"This Oldsmobile weighs 3,600 pounds," he told me. "Operating a machine this size is a huge responsibility. The moment it starts being fun is the moment you should stop driving."
My father had probably said something similar during our hours of driving practice that I ignored, but hearing it from Grandpa hit home. Because of him, when I'm on the road, every car is a loaded weapon potentially aimed at me.
The issue is often framed in the context of rights: "Why does the government think they can tell me what I can or can't do while I'm driving my car?"
This attitude needs adjusting because driving is not a right; it's a privilege. We share the road with countless other people. Driving while distracted, then, is most certainly not a right, no matter how good we think we are at it.