Driven to distraction

There’s a serious menace on the road, according to safety nannies from Washington, D.C., to Denver. But don’t worry, they’re taking action against the threat.

The menace consists of people who talk on their cell phones while driving — in other words, the vast majority of motorists.

We’ve all witnessed drivers who were inattentive or have even caused accidents because they were talking on their cell phones.

But cell phones are also used by responsible drivers, not only to stay in contact with friends, family and businesses, but to report dangerous conditions, accidents or other emergencies.

The nannies go too far, both with their rhetoric and proposed solutions.

For instance, the nonprofit National Safety Council argues cell phone users are as dangerous as drunk drivers and cell phone use by motorists should be prohibited.

“When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away,” said Janet Froetscher, president and chief executive of the safety council. “It’s time to take the cell phones away.”

But, of course, talking on a cell phone isn’t really the same as driving drunk. Cell phones may distract, but they don’t slow reflexes, blur vision, spur aggression or impair judgment.

Moreover, traffic fatalities attributed to cell phone use — perhaps as high as 2,600 a year, according to one major study to estimate fatalities — are a fraction of alcohol-related fatalities, approximately 13,000 in 2007. The National Safety Council, estimated 216 million motorists use cell phones while they drive. Putting a number on how many people drive while intoxicated is difficult, but based on one survey, the number would be roughly 30 million.

Clearly, drunk drivers cause many times the number of deaths, proportionately, than cell phone users do.

State Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, has a more modest goal in mind. She introduced legislation this week that would allow drivers to use hands-free cell devices such as earpieces or speaker phones. That wouldn’t be unique. Six states and the District of Columbia already ban hand-held cell phones while driving. It’s better than a total ban on cell phones. However, we don’t think either one is necessary.

Reckless and careless driving are already against the law, and cell phone users who drive erratically can already be stopped and ticketed. But police officers have better things to do than try to determine which drivers have cell phones held to their ears.


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