Like all of us, James Cunningham has seen them on the freeway: the distracted drivers going far too slow for the traffic flow, making herky-jerky, sometimes boneheaded moves that make him say to himself "Either that guy's been drinking or he's on his car phone."
"You know when you're behind a car phone user," says the 26-year-old Santa Monica stockbroker. "They jam on their brakes. They go too slow. They weave. They act like they're the only person on the road. My rule is to stay as far away from them as I can."
Now a study in the New England Journal of Medicine has weighed in with evidence to support what many Southern California freeway users have believed all along. Cellular phones are red-flag road hazards.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, suggests that talking on the phone while driving can be as hazardous as being behind the wheel after a few drinks, quadrupling the risk of having an accident.
All across Los Angeles on Thursday, news of the study only accentuated the polar-opposite opinions about cellular phone use in a car-crazy region where busy professionals often endure hourlong commutes.
One camp subscribes to the cell-phone-as-lifesaver theory.
"Let me tell you something," said an emphatic Cecelia Williams, manager of an L.A. Cellular Superstore in downtown Santa Monica. "The cellular phone is the best freeway safety device ever invented. Period.
"Do you know how many times I have reported accidents from my cell phone or called police about drunken or homeless pedestrians wandering the streets? These phones help save lives."
But those who don't own mobile phones see them as obnoxious toys.
"They shouldn't allow them to be used in cars," said one man at Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. "With all that traffic, what's so important to say that you have to blab on your phone in your car? Those things are menaces. I wouldn't own one if you paid me."
In Southern California, more than 2 million people own cellular phones. It's a place where the car phone has become as ubiquitous as the roadside palm tree. Mobile phones can be purchased at cellular phone specialty shops, electronics boutiques, department stores, drugstores and even from an occasional freeway offramp hustler.
Car phone advocates acknowledge that using a cellular phone can be a distraction while driving, but insist that it's a lot like walking and chewing gum at the same time--anyone can do it.
"We as a company encourage people to drive properly and defensively," said Steve Crosby, a spokesman for L.A. Cellular and a car phone user. "The No. 1 purpose while behind the wheel is to drive the car, not put on your lipstick or shave or even use the telephone."
California Highway Patrol officers said Thursday that it was misleading to compare talking on a cellular phone with drinking and driving. "First of all, you're comparing impairment with inattention," said Officer Rob Lund, a CHP public affairs officer in Glendale.
"If you're on the phone and you come across a dangerous situation, you hang up. But if you're drinking and driving, there's no way out. You're deuced. You can't straighten up."
Lund said that although the CHP does not keep statistics on mobile phone accident reports, officers are always thankful for the tips. But the sheer volume of the calls shows the runaway popularity of cellular phones. "We get so many duplicate calls, sometimes a dozen or more for the same accident--even after the help has arrived." he said.
More aggravating, he said, were the mobile phone users who misuse the 911 emergency line.
"For every person doing us a public service by following a drunk driver and reporting it on his cellular phone, you have several more who use the 911 line for the craziest reasons," he said. "They call if their car is stalled, to ask directions or for traffic conditions. They even ask us to call their employer and let them know they're going to be late."
For many, cellular phones are a sign of prestige and importance. It's the L.A. look--driving with one hand on the wheel, the phone cradled in one ear, while talking to a client, a boss or, of course, dahling, even your agent.
Thinking it was the thing to do, aspiring actress Julie Quinn bought a cellular phone the day she moved from New York to Los Angeles several months ago.
"Now I'm just so scared to talk to people on that thing," she said. "It's physically impossible to look at the phone to dial a number and keep your eyes on the road."
Nonetheless, she keeps the phone for emergencies. "It's just too expensive to use just to call my friends," she said. "A one-dollar call at home costs me 10 bucks in the car."
Added Pepperdine law student Grace Chang: "I use my phone but I'm cautious. If the traffic gets bad, I hang up. Or if it's a troublesome conversation, I pull over to finish."
In December, L.A. Cellular manager Williams sold nearly 400 mobile phones. And she blanches at the suggestion that selling a distracting car phone is like a bartender serving one too many drinks for the road.
"Absolutely not!" she said. "I'm selling a safety tool to protect people and help keep them in contact. I couldn't live without my cell phone."