Car phones, the newest status symbol on Los Angeles freeways, are rapidly becoming a subject of controversy between traffic officers and owners of the gadgets.
"Car phones are just another entity in the car, like a cigarette or a radio, that will cause the driver to be inattentive," California Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Lunn said.
Clayton Marquardt, a Los Angeles stockbroker who equipped his Honda Civic with a phone three months ago, counters with: "I don't think there has ever been a situation when my car phone got me in trouble. I sing to myself in the car too, and that doesn't take my attention away."
The dispute may--or may not--be settled when CHP officers begin a yearlong study in January to try and determine whether the devices contribute to traffic accidents. The study is mandated by a state Senate resolution passed in September.
How the study will be conducted has not been decided, but Lunn said he is already unsure whether the dangers of car phones can be assessed.
'Hard to Show'
"I have investigated, like all CHP officers, many accidents where someone leaned down to change radio stations and looked up to find traffic in front of them stopped. But inattention is hard to show, even though we believe it's a factor in many accidents," he said.
Phone conversations take more time and attention than channel switches, Lunn believes, but he admitted, "It's going to be difficult to prove."
Owners of the gadgets disagree strenuously with Lunn's criticisms.
"If you're a real phone addict, it might be a distraction. But common sense prevails. Sometimes you have to stop talking and put it down while you maneuver, but that doesn't really happen that often," Marquardt said.
Dialing is done by touch, Marquardt explained, and can be accomplished with one hand. He compared the procedure with switching on a car radio or pushing a button to change frequencies.
The stockbroker admitted that he looks at his phone as a status symbol.
'Sort of a Toy'
"It's sort of a toy, really--and the bigger the boy the bigger the toy," he said.
Marquardt said he has used his phone for such unexpected purposes as a quick call to a friend who was unable to hear a knock on his door because his stereo was too loud.
But he said the time he spends on the road may not justify the cost of the phone, which he leases for $35 a month. Retail prices start at about $700 and more expensive models can run as high as $3,000.
"You have to really spend a lot of time on the road to reap the benefits," he said.
Other owners, however, have claimed that the cost of a phone is worth the increased driving safety awareness they bring.
AT&T, one of the biggest manufacturers of the units, released a study conducted earlier this year in association with American Automotive Assn. that alleged that car phone users spend twice as much time on the road as non-users and have half as many accidents.
The AT&T study also claimed that car phone users are more likely to be good Samaritans, reporting road hazards and other serious incidents.
One Los Angeles owner confirmed the finding.
"I've reported one accident and once I turned in a drunk driver. You just dial 911 and let the CHP take over," Ed Waggamann, a Los Angeles Cadillac dealership sales manager, said.
Waggamann, whose dealership has leased or sold more than 1,000 of the devices since less expensive cellular models became available in May, 1984, said most customers are businessmen, but car phones are becoming popular with other drivers as well.
"We have all kinds of customers--housewives to businessman. About three-fourths want them for business use, but another 10% want peace of mind," Waggamann said.
"Suppose you break down. In some neighborhoods, all you can do is lock your car and call the police for help. You at least have the feeling you're in touch with the rest of the world," he said.