Friday, July 7th, 2006
Talk about a problem!
Lawmakers looking at tougher driving laws
By Shelley Grieshop
They're chic and trendy, colorful and sporty. But should cell phones be allowed in the hands of drivers on the highway?
As cell phone use while driving increases, so does the debate on their interference with driver attention. Numerous studies have been performed on the subject but hard data on crashes caused by cell phone use is scarce, officials say. And that leaves lawmakers with unreliable statistics to push for legislation.
Why? In Ohio, accident reports do not specifically list "cell phone use" as one of the choices for officers to mark as a crash factor. So when statistics are tallied in Columbus - where all accident reports statewide are recorded - cell phone use frequently isn't counted when it is a factor.
"It's an issue we're looking at right now," says Susan Raber, communications director for the Ohio Department of Public Safety (ODPS). "We're currently seeking feedback from law enforcement agencies across the state."
According to the ODPS, only six states, including Ohio, cannot currently record cell phone use as a factor on crash report forms. Thirty-two states have the option; the other 12 list only a generic "driver distraction" code.
On an Ohio crash form obtained by The Daily Standard, "driver inattention" is listed along with 21 other factors such as vision obstruction and fatigue, but not cell phone usage. In defense, Raber also noted the forms do not list "putting on make-up" or other distractive behavior.
"We try to educate and definitely discourage any kind of behavior that distracts a driver from the road," she adds.
More than 212 million Americans now use cell phones, and as most drivers can attest, many have them in hand while attempting turns, passing other vehicles and performing other risky driving maneuvers. In several states and cities such as New York and Chicago, hand-held cell phone use is prohibited while driving with fines ranging from $50-$250 for a first offense.
According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, there are two main dangers associated with driving and cell phone use: drivers take their eyes off the road while dialing and become so absorbed in conversation that their ability to concentrate is severely impaired.
Recent studies show hands-free versions aren't much safer.
But even though cell phones have been targeted as the most common distraction for drivers today (drowsiness is second), a study released in April 2006 by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said they are far less likely to be the cause of a crash or near-miss than other distractions such as reaching for a cup of coffee.
Another study released by the University of Utah revealed that talking on a cell phone is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than driving drunk.
"We found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit," says Frank Drews, an assistant professor of psychology at the university.
Drews added that drunk driving - which also was studied by the university - also isn't recommended while operating a vehicle.
Residents sound off:
Many local residents told The Daily Standard they believe cell phone use should be banned on the open road, even though most admitted to using them for non-emergency calls while behind the wheel.
Jane Heiby of Celina says she seldom uses her cell phone while driving even though it's usually with her at all times.
"I don't think it's a good idea," says the 50-year-old. "I think they're great to keep in the visor or the steering column for emergencies, but we don't need them in our hands when we're driving."
Most area motorists interviewed this week said they know talking on cell phones while driving - especially for long periods of time - isn't smart or safe, but said that hasn't stopped them. Some local drivers became defensive about the issue, pointing fingers of guilt that eventually pitted experienced drivers against rookie ones.
Several states, such as Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee, have taken steps to regulate cell phone use for young drivers under 21. Middle-age and older drivers in the Grand Lake area say that's a good idea .
"I think it's a problem that should be stopped," says Lee Billger, a 73-year-old Celina resident. "Young kids get a phone stuck in their ear and they forget what the hell they're doing."
But several 16-year-old Coldwater youths disagreed.
"I think we (young drivers) are more careful because we're newer drivers. It's the older drivers that shouldn't have them," Rachel Huelsman says.
Her friend, Nicole Griesdorn, says she abides by her parents' rule that she can't make calls while driving, "but I can answer it if it rings."
Zach Kaup, who just got his driver's license one week ago, says talking on his cell phone while driving isn't a problem for him or his parents.
"As long as you can do two things at once, it shouldn't matter," he says.
Like Huelsman, he believes adults, "who think they're good drivers," are likely more at risk traveling down the road with a cell phone clutched in their hand.
Local drivers aged 50 and up - who didn't have cell phones dangling from their waist or tucked into a purse - took the issue further and questioned the overall necessity of the new technology.
Billger, who says he'll never own a cell phone, lumped their usefulness in a category with credit cards.
"I went my whole life without either and got along just fine. Neither are necessary," he says.