"Cell Phone Follies"
May 22, 2001
"Lauren, we're really hoping we can count on your support ..."
I'd just received a call from Harry Tuttle, who identified himself as the president of Citizens United Against Unsanitary and Unsafe Cell Phones.
"We know you've been critical about some aspects of the cellular telephone industry, so we figured you'd want to join in our crusade against the non-emergency use of hand-held cell phones while driving," said Harry. "Lots of states are trying to ban them, and federal legislation was also just proposed to do the same thing. You've probably heard that using those phones while driving is like having an elevated blood alcohol level."
"I remember that report," I said. "But I couldn't help but wonder what else we do while driving that could be equated to a higher blood alcohol reading."
"Huh? What do you mean?" asked Harry.
"Well, a study that came out last week from the University of North Carolina reported that cell phone use was a factor in only 1.5% of all 'distracted driver' accidents. I wonder what distracted the drivers in the other 98.5% of those accidents? Talking to the person in the other seat? Eating? Putting on makeup? Screwing around with the car radio or other dashboard electronics? ..."
"OK, OK, Lauren, I'll grant you that cell phones are only at fault in a tiny percentage of accidents where the driver is distracted, but 1.5% is better than nothing, right? And we only want to ban hand-held cell phones -- hands-free ones would still be just fine while driving," said Harry.
"Haven't most studies suggested that it's mainly the act of the conversation itself, not so much the handling of the phone, that's the main distraction?"
"What are you proposing, Lauren? Banning all use of any cell phones while driving? What about all those other distractions you mentioned? You gonna ban them too? Don't the police have better things to do? How would a cop know if you're talking on a hands-free cell phone or just mumbling to yourself?"
"Relax Harry, I didn't propose anything. My point is simply that there are many potential distractions while driving, and that cell phones are apparently just a very small component when it comes to accidents. And the hand-held variety just happen to be highly visible so they're getting all the attention from people like you, regardless of the reality of the numbers. Anyway, aren't there already laws in most areas against driving in a hazardous manner, regardless of whether it's caused by donuts or cell phones? Isn't it the driving that we should be concentrating on, not the phones? I'm all for cracking down on unsafe driving, but banning hand-held phones doesn't seem to make any sense based on the reality of the statistics we have at this point. Seems like people are substituting folklore for science again."
"Lauren, the industry folks I represent ..."
"Industry folks, Harry?"
"Uh, hmm. Let me be frank about this, Lauren. I work with some people in the cellular industry who strongly feel that the solution to the public concerns about cell phones is to promote hands-free phones installed in vehicles, just like in the early days of cellular service. Regardless of what the studies seem to show, the industry knows this stuff best," said Harry. "Why else would you see increasing support from the industry for laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving but permitting the use of hands-free units? What possible ulterior motive could they have?"
"Well, now that you mention it, aren't installed hands-free units much more expensive than the hand-helds that the carriers pretty much have to give away these days? Seems to me that mandating that only hands-free units could be used while driving could be worth billions to the industry," I said.
"Lauren, I can see that I'm not going to be making any inroads against your cynical attitude about this, and I gotta go now anyway. I've arrived at my office and my phone battery is about to go dead," said Harry.
"Happy recharging," I replied.
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For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren
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