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Cell chats are least of safety worries

Let's be honest: Many of us who use hand-held cell phones while driving think we're pretty good at it. We think we're dexterous, even athletic, keenly aware of our surroundings and as alert as a Humvee driver in Basra.

We think this because it's true.

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Practice has made us perfect.

I've had a cell phone for several years now. I've had a few thousand conversations on them -- with relatives, friends and drug dealers -- and I haven't been in a single accident during that time. I've been lucky that none of the multitudes of bad cell phone drivers out there has crashed into me.

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Do I knock wood? Yes.

But it's not just luck that has kept me out of trouble.

I've put a lot of work into developing my skills.

I'm an ace at one-handed driving, have been for years, even before the cellular towers sprouted.

I got plenty of fresh air and exercise during the time my cerebellum was developing, and, while I haven't had a scan recently, it's apparent that all neural pathways linking the cerebellum to my motor cortex are up to code. I batted over .300 in my baseball days, and I can still hit a Wiffle ball over the garage. I eat carrots like candy. My senses are still razor-sharp. All systems are go, and I'm pretty good at multi-tasking. I can drive over 65 and talk -- it's more like shouting --to my hard-of-hearing mother, the former Rose Popolo, on my Motorola.

Ironically, I used to think a hand-held cell phone ban would be a good idea.

That was before I had a cell phone.

Now that I -- and many other Maryland drivers -- have become highly skilled at driving while on the phone, politicians want to make it illegal.

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The Maryland legislature seems to be stepping closer to banning hand-held cell phones while driving -- possibly joining 28 states that have similar laws.

But, of course, they intend to do nothing about people who rubber-neck as they drive, or who eat as they drive, or who fuss with compact discs as they drive, or who talk to passengers while they drive, even though those activities contribute more to accidents than cell phones do, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (This raises the question of state-endorsed carpooling, a wonderful idea that too few Maryland commuters embrace. If the state continues to encourage carpooling as a gas-saving measure, are we going to see a law banning passenger conversation with drivers?)

That AAA study is seven years old now, based on information from the mid- to late-1990s, when most Americans were still getting used to cell phones. Every study I've seen puts cell phones low on the list of distractions contributing to accidents.

And no one seems to take into account that, as time goes by, that veteran drivers might be getting good at driving while holding a cell phone.

Are hands-free systems better? Looks like the jury is still out on that question.

Is it the device or the conversation that's distracting?

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We don't know yet.

A lot of the cell-while-driving prohibitions still seem to be based on anecdotal evidence. That's understandable because it's a highly visible phenomenon in our midst, and people, including legislators, link hand-held phones with poor and dangerous driving.

But I'm opposed to making laws based on hunches or intuition.

So I know what you're thinking at this point in today's column. You're thinking Rodricks opposes banning cell phones used by drivers while their motor vehicles are in motion.

Wrong.

Ha! Fooled ya!

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Despite my smug assertions about being a highly skilled cell-talker-driver -- and taking great pride in that -- I support the Maryland ban.

But not because I think it will reduce accidents, though that might be a limited side benefit.

I support the ban because cell phones are a public mental health menace, and we need to limit their use.

As much as I like my Motorola, and use it every day, I don't need to use it as much as I do. It probably just adds stress to my life. On balance, what it gives in convenience and utility it takes away in peace and quiet, two things quickly vanishing in our wired-and-wireless world.

Think about it: We got by fine without cell phones just a few years ago. A whole new industry has developed to keep us buying them and paying ridiculous bills for them.

We've been convinced that cell phones are absolutely essential when they're not.

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If you don't believe me, try keeping a log of the calls you receive and make during any given day. Consider how many could have waited until you hit home or office. You'll see what I saw when I did this -- lifting phone to ear while you're driving or walking down the sidewalk, or in a meeting, just isn't necessary about 90 percent of the time. Reading, listening to the radio, having a face-to-face conversation with a colleague or friend, quietly thinking as you drive or stroll -- all of that would have been better than another chatty phone call on the cell.

If the Maryland General Assembly wants to prohibit cell phone usage by drivers -- hand-held and/or hands-free -- because its members believe the ban will save lives, fine. Let them believe that; there's probably even some truth to it. I chose to see it as a law requiring a mental health break -- for a few minutes each day, while we're stuck in our cars, a bit of precious peace and quiet.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Catch Dan Rodricks on "Midday," noon to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday, on 88.1 WYPR-FM.


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