Driving and dialing

Using a cell phone while driving isn’t just rude or inconsiderate. It’s dangerous. More dangerous, in fact, than driving drunk. It’s time to start addressing this problem with the seriousness it deserves.

If you’ve spent any time at all on local roads and highways lately, you know what we’re talking about. You’ve probably slammed on your brakes once or twice to avoid a cell-phone-using driver drifting into your lane on the freeway or blowing through a red light downtown, and maybe you’ve even been involved in one of the hundreds of collisions that occur each year in California in which cell-phone use played a role. But chances are you’ve never stopped to consider just how much of a menace driving and dialing really is or what can be done about it.

The truth is that, according to recent studies, cell-phone users are so distracted that they are less observant of the visual environment and have a slower reaction time than drivers who are legally drunk. Statistically, driver distraction causes 30 percent to 40 percent of all accidents, and about 7 percent of those distractions occur because drivers are dialing or talking on their cells. The California Highway Patrol listed cell-phone use as a factor in 931 collisions during 2004 and reported more than 1,200 cell-phone-related collisions during just the first 10 months of 2005.

The inescapable conclusion is that using a cell phone while driving is much more dangerous than most people think, and it’s time for our state laws to begin to reflect that reality. That’s why we support Senate Bill 1613, which would ban drivers from using handheld cell phones, imposing a fine of up to $50. Sponsored by Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the bill was recently approved by the state Senate and now will go to the Assembly for debate. If passed, California would join New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., in banning handheld-cell-phone use while driving. Twenty-five other states are considering similar measures.

Critics will argue that the law will not solve all problems associated with driving and cell use. They’re right. S.B. 1613 allows headsets and other hands-free cell use and won’t eliminate the problem of driver distraction. But the law would be likely to prevent a significant number of cell-related accidents and would send an important message regarding the seriousness of the issue.

Most of us tend to view cell-phone use while driving the same way we view cell phones in movie theaters, restaurants and other public places where we wish we didn’t have to put up with other people’s ring tones and personal conversations—that is to say, as nothing more than inconsiderate behavior. But this isn’t just a question of etiquette. Cell-phone-using drivers are putting the lives and property of others at risk, and passing a law to regulate driving and dialing is one good way to begin to change public attitudes.

It’s time to set some limits, and banning hand-held-cell use while driving is a good place to start. We urge the Assembly and the governor to make S.B. 1613 law.