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A Times Editorial

Ban cell calls while driving

The science is in. Driving while talking on a cell phone, handheld or hands-free, is dangerous and leads to fatalities. The time has come for Florida to ban the use of cell phones while driving and dismiss the old arguments. One goes like this: If you ban cell phones in vehicles, you should ban ice cream eating, dog petting and makeup application. But talking on a cell phone is a particular hazard that deserves special attention from state legislators.

The National Safety Council wants all states to ban motorists from using both kinds of cell phones. Now only six states and the District of Columbia ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving. The council argues that talking on cell phones is similar to drunken driving, increasing the risk of a crash fourfold. Janet Froetscher, the safety council's president and CEO, said the organization examined more than 50 scientific studies, including one by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. It concluded that 6 percent of vehicle wrecks, causing about 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious injuries a year, are attributable to the use of cell phones.

"It's not just what you're doing with your hands," Froetscher said. "It's that your head is in the conversation, and so your eyes are not on the road."

David Strayer, director of the Applied Cognition Laboratory at the University of Utah and a leading researcher on cell phone safety, has collected years of evidence about the use of cell phones behind the wheel. He says talking on a cell phone may produce mental images that disrupt spatial processing needed to drive safely. While drivers look side to side when they are not talking on the phone, they tend to stare straight ahead when they are on cell phones.

Advocates of banning cell phone use while driving do not expect an easy battle. The cell phone industry has deployed an army of lobbyists to state capitals and Washington to block legislation. But the science is clear. "Public awareness and the laws haven't caught up with what the scientists are telling us," Froetshcher said. "There is no dispute that driving while talking on your cell phone … is dangerous."

State lawmakers in Florida and in other states have no legitimate reason to ignore what science has confirmed. The time has come to ban the use of cell phones while driving. It's not about limiting individual choices. It's about saving innocent lives.

Ban cell calls while driving 02/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009 3:58am]
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