Can the Federal Government Stop Cell Phone Use?

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - Cellular phone use was the subject of a congressional hearing on Wednesday, as a parade of witnesses explained why drivers should or should not be stopped from chatting on the phone while driving.

The issue is a battle of studies and statistics that are sometimes at odds with sympathetic stories of people who have lost a loved one because of a distracted driver.

"It's not a new issue," said Mark Lee Edwards, managing director of the American Automobile Association's traffic safety division, who testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

"During the past century, [windshield] wipers and a host of other innovations designed to enhance motorists' comfort, safety and convenience drew negative reaction until their benefits were understood and people learned to manage the distractions they caused," said Edwards.

Eating hamburgers, tending to fussy children and variations of rubbernecking were among the distractions identified by drivers as more likely to cause accidents, according to an American Automobile Association study released on Tuesday. In fact, cell phone use caused 1.5 percent of accident-causing distractions, compared to 29.4 percent for things going on outside the car, the study reported.

But Patricia Pena doesn't believe other driver distractions trump cell phone use. Pena and her husband lost their two-year-old daughter Morgan in a 1999 auto accident, which the at-fault driver attributed to a cell phone distraction. According to Pena, under Pennsylvania law, the other driver received just a $50 fine and two traffic tickets.

"I defy anyone to come up with evidence of that kind of proliferation of lipstick-wielding drivers," said Pena in a written statement, referring to one oft-cited, cliche cause of crashes. "And if they can, tell them to start their own damn campaign."

"You can't compare [other driving distractions to] statistics like 80 million to 100 million cell phone users (with 40,000 new subscribers per day), 85 percent of whom use the phone occasionally while driving and 27 percent who spend at least half their driving time on the phone," said Pena.

Pena blames both drivers and the cellular phone industry for accidents linked to cell phone use; the industry has fought proposed restrictions.

Research offered by Thomas A. Dingus, director of Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, supports Pena's position.

"Driving distraction associated with electronic devices has the potential to pose a serious public health risk," warned Dingus. According to Dingus, the many electronic gadgets and tools hitting the market, such as navigation systems, pose a total crash risk two to five times greater than, say, tuning a radio or eating.

Everyone seems to agree that more studies are needed. AAA, for example, is recommending some steps cell phone manufacturers and government agencies can take to document effects of driver distraction on safety, educate the public on how to manage those distractions and design less distracting devices.

But there is heated disagreement about what's to be done right now.

Some lawmakers and activists, like Pena, want laws. Almost 100 state and local laws have been proposed this year; three states--California, Massachusetts and Florida-already impose some restrictions; and 11 local governments outright prohibit it. Wednesday's congressional hearing may foreshadow federal restrictions, as well.

Others fear cell phone regulations will have other safety tradeoffs and look, instead, to the marketplace to provide solutions.

"Technology-specific cell phone bans might have the unintended consequence of discouraging drivers from carrying cell phones in their cars," warned Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies for the Cato Institute. That could cost lives in the long run if people aren't able to dial 911 from the scene of an attack or accident, he said.

Thierer believes that a ban on cell phones wouldn't go far in getting rid of driving distractions.

"The fact of the matter is that smoking inside a car poses a distraction, but people have been doing it for decades," said Thierer. "You talk to insurance people and they will tell you horror stories about people who dropped a cigarette on the floor, went to pick it up before it burned a hole in the carpet, and the next thing you know their head is below the dash and they're driving off the side of the road.

"You could make an argument that we should have banned smoking a long time ago," said Thierer. "Shouldn't policymakers [also] ban Big Macs and Britney Spears in our cars?"

Technology is helping solve a problem it created, Thierer said. "'Hands-free' devices, one-touch speed dialing, 'on-board' navigation devices, and voice-activated calling systems are enabling drivers to live by the old '10 & 2' rule and keep both hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road ahead," he said.

"Drivers need to keep their eyes on the road and their minds on driving," Edwards agreed. "No government edict or regulation can achieve that result."