Lawmakers in Springfield are considering a ban on hand-held cell phones for all drivers in Illinois. The city of Springfield is also considering banning all cell phone use while driving, including hands-free.
At first blush, this may seem like a good idea. We have all seen the tragic stories of lives cut short because someone is busily chatting and texting away on their phone while driving. If hand-held usage is banned statewide, there is an added chance of enforcing the existing no-texting laws (or Internet surfing, or emailing) since the phone cannot be in your hands at all.
Back in basic driver's ed, we were all taught to keep both hands on the wheel in the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions. But, truth be told, who actually keeps both hands on the wheel at all times? In those first warm days of spring, doesn’t everybody roll down their window and rest their elbow on the door as they sit back and enjoy the breeze?
How about those with manual transmission? Particularly in traffic, your right hand is nearly constantly on the gear shift knob as you go from second to third, then from second to first, etc. And how do you take a sip of the beverage sitting in the cupholder without taking a hand off the wheel -- and your eyes off the road -- for a moment?
The answer, of course, is responsible drivers do these things all the time with no negative impact on their driving awareness.
The problem with the total cell phone ban being considered in Springfield, and already enacted elsewhere, is it assumes that merely having a conversation is the problem.
If that were true, then chatting with a passenger would be equally dangerous. Are we going to pass a law that prohibits conversation with a passenger while behind the wheel? What about listening to talk radio shows? Would that also fall under the no-conversation ban? Is singing along with the radio next?
The fact that there is a problem is undisputed. People who are distracted from the essential task of driving cause or are involved in accidents. What is not a fact is that merely talking on a cell phone is causing more accidents.
A few studies done in other countries, some going back to 1997, do show a correlation between cell phone use and accidents. The problem with using this data is much of it was collected at a time when cell phones were still relatively new and hands-free technology was still a pipe dream. These older studies do not take into account the simple fact that humans, at least most humans, are quite adept at mastering and incorporating new technology.
These are the studies that proponents of the hand-held and total cell phone bans are using as the basis for their arguments. That, and what co-sponsor state Rep. John D’Amico (D-Chicago) says is a simple matter of making drivers more responsible behind the wheel.
The first flaw with D'Amico's proposal is that driving in a highly congested urban area and driving down an empty country road are two completely different experiences.
As someone who learned to drive in Chicago and still does so on a regular basis, you’d have to be a special kind of idiot to think you can pay sufficient attention to the traffic, pedestrians and taxis who consider driving a contact sport and still be able to talk on the cell phone. Or to have anything other than a halting conversation with a passenger.
In other words, just because it makes sense for Chicago does not mean it makes sense for the rest of the state.
The second and more telling flaw is the simple lack of empirical evidence. Common sense tells us that with cell phone use, there will be more traffic accidents. The facts, however, simply do not bear this out.
Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said, "The expectation would be that as cell phone use has skyrocketed, we would see a correlation in the number of accidents, but that hasn't happened."
Additionally, a study released this year by the University of Chicago tracked the number of accidents after 9 p.m., when there is an upsurge in cell phone use due to many carriers lowering their rates for "nights and weekend" packages. This study found a 7 percent increase in call volume, yet no discernible increase in accidents.
California, arguably the mecca for the car culture in this country, also released a study this month. In 2008, a statewide ban on all hand-held devices was enacted. In the past two-and-a-half years, all traffic fatalities dropped by 22 percent and fatalities caused by drivers on cell phones dropped by 50 percent.
I am an absolute supporter of banning texting, reading email and surfing on the Internet while driving. These are activities that, even if they could be completed without knee driving, require taking your eyes off the road for more than a split-second.
I also agree that hands-free devices are significantly safer than hand-held devices for the simple fact that holding a phone requires one-handed driving when we should be using two.
However, to ban all cell phone use is both draconian and pointless. Bad drivers -- those who think their time behind the wheel is an opportunity to engage in a variety of activities that have nothing to do with the road in front of them or the vehicles around them -- will be bad drivers whether there is a legal ban on cell phone use or not.
A much better and more effective resolution would be to increase the fines
dramatically for drivers who cause an accident while they are on the phone -- regardless of whether it's a hand-held device or hands-free -- and enforce a statewide ban on all cell phone use for drivers under the age of 18.
But please stop trying to tell the rest of us good, responsible drivers that we are incapable of having a conversation while driving just because some people out there are incapable of walking and chewing gum.