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Distractions kill -- not cell phones

The Baltimore Sun

A proposed ban on the use of cell phones while driving bit the dust in a House of Delegates committee late last month.

Good riddance. While well-intentioned, it's a misguided sledgehammer approach.

My skepticism about a ban was, if anything, increased by a couple of e-mails from critics of cell phone use.

One came from the American Beverage Institute, representing "restaurants committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages."

Putting aside the silly phrase "adult beverages" - so my glass of cabernet is now the equivalent of watching a skin flick? - the organization is trying to sell a spurious equivalency between drunken driving and cell phone use while driving.

"Drivers on cell phones are more impaired than drivers with a .08 BAC [blood-alcohol content]," says one of the organization's talking points.

While the lobby's concern about distracted driving is touching, its members have a clear-cut economic interest in minimizing the impact of drunken driving. It's a cynical campaign that costs the industry credibility.

Also weighing in is a group called, which is campaigning for a federal law banning cell-phone use while driving unless the machine is equipped with "hands-free earpieces" that it offers as part of its "free" Wireless Safety Kit.

"Research, as well as international reaction has proven that using a simple hands-free ear-piece can significantly raise the safety level of cell phone usage," the organization crows.

That doesn't wash. If cell phone use becomes unsafe, it's not because one hand is off the wheel. It's because the driver's eyes and mind are distracted from the road. The same goes for a cheeseburger, a cup of coffee, a car radio, a pet or one's spouse.

Then there's all the e-mail that comes in from people defending their right to shatter the speed limit. It seems most of them want to shift the priority of traffic enforcement from their offense to a crackdown on cell phone use.

Sorry, speeding is inherently dangerous. Cell phone use is hazardous when the driver allows it to be.

There is no doubt that is happening a lot, but there's a way to address the problem that falls short of an outright ban.

It's a response more like Del. James Malone's House Bill 1127, which addresses "any activity that distracts the person's attention from the driving task."

The Baltimore County Democrat's bill, which is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow, would makes distracted driving a "secondary action," meaning an officer can pull you over only if the distraction is connected to another driving offense - such as speeding or drifting between lanes. It sets a penalty of up to $500.

That's not a bad approach. It would be even better if the finding of distracted driving led to an automatic doubling of the fine for any offense committed while not paying attention. Or if it made the driver ineligible for probation before judgment - a judge-granted break than can spare points on one's driving record.

But don't curb the freedom of drivers who use their cell phones sparingly and sensibly.

To defend that freedom, there are some simple practices cell phone users can follow:

Keep it short. Say what needs to be said and get off. "I'm running 15 minutes late. Sorry. See ya." Save the chat for later.

Don't dial anything longer than 911 while in motion. If you don't have voice-dialing, wait until you come to a stop. And be sure to finish before any light turns green.

For incoming calls, keep the phone where you can reach it easily, without fumbling. Otherwise, let it ring and call back later.

Except in a dire emergency, don't pull to the shoulder of a closed-access highway to make a call. Parking there and re-entering the highway could be more hazardous than the phone use. The next exit isn't that far.

Move to the right lane and slow down - but not to a ridiculous degree - while fielding a call.

In challenging weather conditions, don't talk on a phone at all - even with a hands-free device.

And the No. 1 rule: Avoid emotional topics.

Don't haggle over money; don't fight over who's picking up the kids; don't break up with your significant other; don't vent about the injustices of the world; don't chew out your kids. Republicans, don't discuss Hillary Rodham Clinton. Democrats, don't even think about President Bush.

If someone wants to bring up a sensitive topic, put them off until you're parked. And if you're calling someone you know is driving, avoid hot-button issues - or delivering momentous news - until later. "Find a safe place and call me" is a useful phrase.

Cell phone technology came upon us relatively suddenly. We haven't developed a proper etiquette for its use. But before adopting a Carrie Nation approach, we should try a dose of Emily Post.


Last week's column incorrectly identified an organization that is advocating more connections among Maryland transit systems. It is the Transit Riders Action Council. The Transit Riders Action Coalition mentioned in the article is a separate group.

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