Cellular Phones Can Be Hazardous

Don’t Dial and Drive

Friday, February 14, 1997 · Page A26 ©1997
San Francisco Chronicle

NOW THAT a study in the respected New England Journal of Medicine has
shown the dangers of cellular phones in automobiles, it is only a matter
of time until the drumbeat for regulation begins. After all, Australia,
Brazil, England and Israel already prohibit the use of phones while
driving.

Should the United States move quickly to follow suit? No. The debate
over the comparative value and risk of cellular phones is far from
settled.

The first large study of car phones, carried out by two Canadian
research, examined the cases of 699 Toronto drivers who were involved in
noninjury accidents over a 14-month period. Their overall conclusion,
published in the Journal of Medicine this week, was hardly shocking:
Drivers using a cellular phone were more than four times more likely to
have an accident as other drivers — comparable to the increased risk of
driving with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit.

This finding, in itself, shows the seriousness of the
driving-while-dialing issue. Curiously, however, the researchers found
that there was no significant difference in risk between driving with a
hand-held phone or a hands-free phone. One possible explanation would be
that inattention caused by the conversation — not the loss of one hand
from the wheel — is the real culprit here. Still, common sense suggests
that a driver engaged in conversation and wrestling with a flip phone
connected to the cigarette lighter is much more distracted than someone
who can keep both hands on the steering wheel while talking. Also, the
study acknowledged, but did not attempt to quantify, the benefit of car
phones in summoning help in emergencies.

On balance, the Journal article should be cause for extensive
follow-up studies, especially with the number of wireless phones in this
nation at 34 million — and growing.

In the meantime, drivers would be wise to limit their on-the-road
calls to the briefest and most essential conversations. To ignore these
new statistics is to risk becoming one.

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