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Hands free…or brains free? (Scripps Howard News Service / The Washington Times) July 13, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

This year’s award for “Legislation Not Supported by Facts or Research But We’re Going to Pass It Anyway” goes, once again, to the California Assembly, this time for a bill that would fine drivers for using hand-held cell phones.

Only the California Senate and governor stand in its way now. If you are not a Californian, you won’t be left out: Similar legislation has already been enacted in New York and is pending, in some form, in more than 40 states.

Having experienced harrowing taxicab rides on previous trips to New York, I was relieved to know that I would be safe from a driver using a hand-held cell phone on my recent visit. From Manhattan to Kennedy airport on a busy Friday afternoon, however, my driver spent all of his time and most of his energy doing deals in various languages on his cell phone, all hands free, of course. Finally it hit me: we don’t need hands free, we need brains free.

The problem with cell phones, and other driving distractions, is not that they tie up our hands, but that they occupy our minds. A study last year by Virginia Commonwealth University listed the top causes of “distracted driver” accidents, and cell phones didn’t make the top five. All of the leading problems, however, involve drivers’ minds, not their hands: rubber-necking (16 percent), fatigue (12 percent), looking at scenery and landmarks (10 percent), passenger/child distractions (9 percent), adjusting music (7 percent) and finally the cell phone (6 percent).

Legislators need to get out of their limousines and drive the freeways for a little reality check. I was following a slow, erratic driver last week and, pulling around to pass, I saw the reason why: He was shaving while buzzing down the freeway at 65 mph. What California commuter hasn’t seen drivers applying makeup, scanning the newspaper, reading a book or jotting some notes as they drive? Cell phones? How about car faxes and computers, and the latest movie showing on DVD in the SUV?

Before we ban hand-held cell phones for drivers, let’s consider a ban on bills that are not supported by careful research and data. A study released this summer by the National Road Administration in Sweden concluded that hand-held cell phones do not cause more accidents than hands-free units, a conclusion supported by most studies of the issue. After 18 months with the new legislation in New York, there is no data that accidents have been reduced. The California legislative comments do no better than make a general reference to “growing statistical and anecdotal evidence” about cell phones. Before we start limiting people’s freedom, let’s see some hard research.

While we’re at it, let’s also ban legislation that does not address the real, underlying problems. A comprehensive study by the American Automobile Association and the University of North Carolina in 2001 found that cell phones caused only 1.5 percent of distracted driver accidents. If we’re concerned about distractions, why single out cell phones? Why not razors and makeup, too? And if the legislature believes cell phones are a major cause of accidents, then they ought to have the courage of their convictions and ban them altogether, not simply the hand-held ones. As Mantill Williams, national director of public affairs for the AAA, pointed out: “It’s note the device itself — it’s the intellectual distraction of the conversation.”

If this bill passes the California Senate and is signed by the governor, what next? I’m sorry, sir, I’m going to have to cite you for that hand-held cup of coffee.” Or, “You know why I’m pulling you over? You were obviously daydreaming and multitasking back there.” Sure, safety on the highways deserves all the attention drivers can give it, but we already have lawsuits and insurance to sort out the problem of bad drivers. Do we really think legislation — with its hefty $20 fine for using a hand-held cell phone — is necessary?

This is the California legislature’s third run at this bill. It was defeated twice, and only passed the assembly this summer by one vote. It’s time California give this unsupported idea a third strike. Policy-makers need to understand that we are not looking to them for some kind of legislative solution — whether well researched or not — to every problem.

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