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Calling all cars

July 14, 2006

TIME WAS, ANY WEAVING CAR on the road prompted the same response: "Must be a drunk driver." Now the reaction is, "Must be on a cellphone." And much of the time, so it is. As Californians increase their use of cellphones to make the commute less boring or more productive, it has become clear even to chatty drivers (and that would be practically all of us) that they're a real hazard on the road -- as hazardous as drunk drivers, according to several studies.

It's a relief, then, after the repeated failure over the years of bills that would ban driving under the influence of wireless conversation, to hear that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the idea of a ban. The latest bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), would prohibit use of hand-held phones, though it would allow the use of hands-free ones.

The exemption will limit the bill's effectiveness. Numerous studies have found that users of hands-free phones are about as crash-prone as hands-full users, as counterintuitive as that may seem. The danger, apparently, comes not so much from one-handed (or even knee-assisted) driving but from drivers whose attention is more on the person on the other end of the call than on the person on the other side of the traffic light.

But it would be a start just to get two hands on each wheel. At least then, fewer cars might drift across lanes because the driver's hands, eyes and mind are focused on punching little phone buttons. To say nothing of those drivers who make one-handed turns so wide you'd think they were in a semi.

This could be a first step toward a complete ban, which may be necessary eventually. But backing the law with enforcement will be vital. Cellphone use in cars has stayed about the same in other states with similar laws, in part because enforcement (as it is with all traffic laws) is spotty. It would help if the insurance industry got behind its own research on the dangers of cellphones and put the market to work -- in the form of lower premiums for drivers who agree not to use cellphones while behind the wheel.

The wireless industry complains that CD players, screaming children and eating fast food also distract drivers, and that's true. But cellphones top them all, and their use grows every year. Many cellular customers undoubtedly think they are uniquely capable of driving well while on the phone. We just don't want to see that confidence tested when an abrupt change on the road calls for instant, two-handed reaction. Especially if we're in the other car.

As popular as cellphones are, there's also a growing backlash against the erratic driving they can cause. Maybe part of the solution to the epidemic of cellphone use could be a public-education campaign akin to the one the beer industry promotes.

The next time someone calls you from a cellphone, find where he or she is calling from. If it's the car, suggest that you talk later. Remember: Friends don't let friends drink and drive -- and they shouldn't let friends call and drive, either.

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