Anthropologists may someday discover human beings once roamed the highways while chatting away on cellphones held to their ear, which was judged a barbaric practice and outlawed in an effort to improve public safety.
That seems to be the futuristic view behind California's new law, effective July 1, 2008, requiring conversations by drivers on cellphones to be conducted over hands-free equipment.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law on Sept. 15, saying, "The hands-free cellphone bill will save lives by making our roads safer."
But the plan has some outspoken critics, not only the folks with cellphones constantly attached to their ears and the companies that market traditional hand-held cellphones but safety experts who say the entire approach misses the mark.
The problem with cellphones is not a physical one that results from holding them, but a mental one of divided attention that is not solved with hands-free equipment.
A wide body of academic evidence shows that the use of cellphones results in high crash rates, regardless of whether they are hands-free or hand-held models, according to Anne McCartt, vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
The only possible benefit of the California law will occur if it discourages people from using any kind of cellphone while driving, because they don't want to bother buying new equipment, McCartt said.
"The research shows you are four times more likely to have a crash while talking on a cellphone. That applies equally to hand-held phones and hands-free phones," she said.
Having a telephone conversation "shuts down or diverts other kinds of thought," said Gerald Donaldson, vice president for research at Advocates for Highway Safety. "It is a fundamental cognitive distraction. During cellphone calls, people's eyes become fixed, peripheral vision is reduced and they lose the ability to pick up visual clues."
Of course, cellphone use is not the only distraction for drivers. According to preliminary data gathered by the California Highway Patrol, cellphone use contributed to seven fatalities in 2005. In six other deaths, a radio or television was used in the vehicle. Three fatalities were associated with eating, and one with reading.
Fussy children are among the most difficult distractions for drivers, a subject I'll be addressing in the future (e-mail me about your experiences at the address below). According to California Highway Patrol data, six fatalities occurred in 2005 because of drivers distracted by their children.
Nobody wants to ban children. Even banning cellphones is too difficult, politically.
The author of the new law, Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), is a smart legislator, holding enough advanced degrees from top universities to wallpaper an SUV. He said banning cellphones was not an option.
"It is not going to happen," he said. "People are too tied to their cellphones."
He adds, "Is it a total solution? No. Will it save lives? Absolutely."
The proponents of the new law rest their case largely on the argument that a hands-free phone allows drivers to put both hands on the steering wheel.
"So getting people's hands off their phones and onto their steering wheels is going to make a big difference in road safety," the governor said at the bill signing.
Simitian said his bill addresses the issue of "whether you can control the vehicle."
A CHP spokesman said having two hands on the wheel of a vehicle does improve control and safety. "If you hit something in the roadway or make sudden movements, you have only one-half the strength and control with one hand."
But there is no accepted research that shows driving with one hand on the steering wheel is less safe than driving with two hands on the steering wheel, highway safety researcher Donaldson said.
Millions of vehicles, including most large trucks, have manual transmissions that require one hand to shift gears much of the time. The California Vehicle Code does not require the use of two hands on a steering wheel.
Even though the argument of requiring two hands on the steering wheel may be full of holes, it is still more concrete than the mental impairment argument. The problem is that it is very difficult for researchers to understand what is going on in the mind of a driver.
"It is hard to document what is going on in a driver's head or what was going on in a vehicle before a crash," McCartt said.
Because drivers often are not forthright about what they were doing, researchers suspect that cellphone use and other distractions are vastly underestimated causes of fatal accidents. Simitian cites research that shows a "likely" 2,600 deaths may be attributable to cellphone use. How accurate such estimates are is anybody's guess.
Another issue with the new law is whether it's tough enough to make a difference. It carries only a $20 fine for first offenders and is not counted as a moving violation. The bill also has an exemption if a driver can show he or she was making an "emergency" phone call.
Simitian said he hopes the new California law will force the cellphone industry worldwide to adopt new technology that will make dialing and using a cellphone safer in the long run. Just because the government can't solve every problem shouldn't stop it from solving some of the problems.
"We don't have a hands-free hamburger," Simitian said. "But we have a readily available technology for cellphones. Why not use it?"