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Cellphones and driving: no

Congress should pass the ALERT Drivers Act that bans texting behind the wheel, but getting drivers to put down their cellphones will be more difficult.

August 21, 2009

The science is clear on cellphones: Except for allowing people to call for help in an emergency, they make poor driving companions.

A solid and growing body of studies shows that texting, conversing on hand-held phones or even chatting hands-free -- the one cellphone activity allowed under California law -- make us dangerous drivers, as likely to get into an accident as if we were legally drunk. Yet just as people used to say that a few beers didn't affect their motoring skills, drivers these days believe they're perfectly alert behind the wheel while on a cellphone. It's all those other motorists who can't talk and drive at the same time.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is calling a summit on distracted driving after a spate of recent studies and fatal collisions. Only slightly more than half the states have laws restricting phone use in cars.

Getting drivers to follow such laws is another matter. In New York, a ban on hand-held cellphones brought only a brief drop in their use. But in California, the law that took effect in July 2008 has been surprisingly effective so far. A study by the Automobile Club of Southern California, in which researchers observed motorists for 10 months, found that use of hand-held phones has dropped by nearly 60%. Figures from the state Office of Traffic Safety show a dramatic decrease in traffic accidents coinciding with the law, though much of that could have been caused by gyrations in gas prices and the economy.

Outlawing texting while driving should be an easy call. Thumb-typing messages on a tiny keyboard takes the eyes, a hand and attention off driving for up to several seconds at a time -- enough to travel the length of a football field at higher speeds. Congress should pass S. 1536, the so-called ALERT Drivers Act, which would cut transportation funding to states that don't pass texting bans.

Curtailing phoning while driving, though, will require an effective public campaign. Drunk-driving laws had only limited impact until Mothers Against Drunk Driving made driving under the influence socially unacceptable. People railed against seat-belt laws -- remember the old canard, "You're safer being thrown from the car in a crash than wearing a seat belt"? -- until public education coupled with stricter laws created a generation that can't imagine not buckling up.

The campaign may have begun. A graphic public-service announcement produced in Wales is making the rounds of the Internet this week. It's a dramatization, but the grief and terror it depicts when lives are lost because of a phone-distracted driver seem all too real.

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