Column: Cell phones: boon or bane?

By Shouger Merchant

There’s dispute among experts on whether talking on a cell phone while driving is a serious distraction. A recent National Transportation Safety Board survey said that motorists who use cell phones while driving are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. This contradicts a 2003 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety stating that drivers are far less distracted by their cell phones than other common activities, such as reaching for items on the seat or glove compartment or talking to passengers.

The Chicago City Council recently enacted a ban on cell phone usage while driving a vehicle in the traffic-packed city after much controversy. Drivers talking on a cell phone are fined $50 per violation. The consequences of this ban could include repeated trips to and from a certain place, the stopping of cars in zones where they are not supposed to halt, an increase in the amount of tickets given and subsequent inconvenience of being late to work, class or an appointment. Although the ban has not been passed by the Illinois General Assembly, U.S. Congress is considering making it a national law. But don’t we have enough problems in this country than to turn our attention to drivers who can’t keep their eyes on the road?

Let’s be clear: is it that holding a cell phone or talking on the phone that is the problem? If the distraction is the holding of something in one hand and steering the wheel with the other, then we shouldn’t drink water, munch on some food or switch radio stations while driving. In this case, people using speakerphone and earpieces should not be distracted at all. Should we then just come up with a ban on driving with one hand to avoid such accidents?

If it is the actual listening to people talk on the other end of the line that is the distraction, then should there be a new rule that people should drive alone? When we drive with someone in the passenger seat, then will we not get distracted talking to them? People have had intense conversations while driving without getting into accidents. Besides, talking on the cell phone while crossing the road is catastrophic as well, as we witnessed in Sarah Channick’s accident two weeks ago on campus. But there is no proposed ban for cell phones in crosswalks.

It may hold true that talking on the cell phone, punching in numbers, screening a call before you answer it or reading a text message takes away from the driver’s concentration. But when we pass the driving test and get a license, we are presumed to be rational people who act responsibly behind the wheel. What is required is education of traffic hazards and safety tips for everybody so that we are aware that even carrying on a heated conversation with a passenger or chatting on a cell phone for prolonged periods of time is a safety risk. Chatting on the phone is as risky as attempting to put on some make up or brush your hair. The driver should be able to choose whether or not he will be able to talk on the phone and concentrate on the road.

I do believe that it isn’t the act of holding the phone that is a distraction. It is the mere act of multitasking and attempting to concentrate on more than one task. Some people can do it and some people can’t. As responsible and mature individuals, we know that we should only undertake an activity when we know we can successfully perform it. People should be allowed to exercise their own rights in their own vehicle, as long as they obey traffic rules and give the proper amount of attention required to the road. Besides, judging from the convenience factor, driving would be boring without a chat.