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07-07-06 Talk about a problem!

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.


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