Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Car cell phones are handy, and that can be a problem

Study to look at dangers of chatting and driving

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Motorists are dialing up trouble when they try to use their cellular phones and drive their cars at the same time.

        A pending study on the practice, announced by federal safety regulators, is being praised by Tristate police officials, who say such a comprehensive study would raise public awareness about the dangers of being distracted while driving.

        Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are trying to document the problem nationwide.

        Beginning this fall, they will examine the impact on drivers of cellular phone use, Internet access and electronic navigation systems that require interaction.

        The NHTSA study, which gets under way this fall, is welcomed by local police. They say such a study would prompt greater public awareness of the problem of distracted drivers.

        “A national study would help focus attention on this. It's a growing problem,” said West Chester Township Police Capt. John Bruce. “But statistically, it's been hard to prove how many accidents are caused by cell phones.”

        Butler County sheriff's deputies think that Fairfield High School drama teacher Kathleen Sullivan was distracted by a cell phone when she drove through a stop sign in 1998 and was killed.

        In fact, cell phones were a contributing factor in 57 fatal crashes in 1997, the last year for which figures are available, according to a previous NHTSA study.

        Talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident and was almost as dangerous as being drunk behind the wheel, a study published the same year in the New England Journal of Medicine said.

        Fort Thomas Police Chief Steven Schmidt said he is happy to see someone beginning a comprehensive, national examination of the problem.

        “I see them everywhere. It's a problem, and a little bit of common sense goes a long way in using them safely,” Chief Schmidt said.

        Brooklyn, Ohio, has the distinction of being the first municipality to ban the use of hand-operated cell phones while driving.

        The community of 11,000, just west of Cleveland, adopted an ordinance in 1999 banning hand-held cell phone use in moving vehicles. Brooklyn police have issued 250 tickets since Sept. 1.

        Since then, a handful of other municipalities around the nation have adopted similar ordinances. Dozens of states in recent years have considered such legislation, but none of them have passed statewide laws yet.

        Several countries, however, have banned use of cell phones while driving.

        Brooklyn Officer Richard Hov an, who has written 210 of the community's 250 cell phone citations, said it's only a matter of time before state or federal laws are enacted to prohibit drivers using hand-held cell phones.

        “A driver's first responsibility is to the people on the roadways,” he said.

        But Chief Schmidt is skeptical of any such law having a significant impact. He cites the myriad other electronic distractions for drivers, including cellular speaker phones, Internet access and interactive navigation systems.

        “Besides,” he said, “how do you legislate common sense?”

        Even restricting cell phone use to speaker phone communication systems is problematic, said Jennifer Ledonne, spokeswoman for the Cincinnati American Automobile Association.

        A recent AAA traffic study of driver distractions found that the type of conversation can greatly worsen the problem, she said.

        “Intense conversations are significantly more distracting than casual conversations,” Ms. Ledonne said.

        Gressie Long, spokeswoman for Cincinnati Bell Telephone, said her company offers hands-free cellular phone systems for cars and always advocates the safe use of any type of vehicular communication systems.

        She said drivers should pull off the road to answer or initiate a cellular call.


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