Point Counterpoint: Cell Phones

Ban will keep citizens safe

Recently, a graduate student named Matt Wilhelm was riding his bike and was struck by a car and suffered injuries that ultimately ended with his death. The driver of the car that hit him was talking on her cell phone when the accident happened.

An isolated incident like this should never be a reason to enact a law. Hasty governmental reactions to tragedies have often led to some of the worst laws in history.

But when this isolated incident gets multiplied across the country and demonstrates a pattern of public endangerment, the government not only has a right to act but a responsibility.

A 2005 study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that drivers who use cell phones while driving are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Another 2006 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that almost 80 percent of crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds of the event, the most common distraction being the use of cell phones.

This evidence soundly indicates that if fewer drivers used cell phones while driving, there would be fewer accidents, fewer injuries and fewer deaths.

Some opponents of a law against cell phone use while driving argue that such a law would be unenforceable and regulates personal behavior beyond the scope of what the government should be doing.

But the law would be no harder to enforce than laws against drunk driving, which requires some outward sign of reckless driving to give an officer reason to believe the driver is drunk (and sometimes the only sign of such driving that will occur is a fatal accident).

The idea that the government is overextending its bounds is simply an unconscionable and paranoid reaction to a simple public safety measure. Plainly put, sometimes it is the government’s job to regulate personal behavior.

Do we live in an Orwellian, totalitarian regime because we do not allow those with a blood alcohol level above .08 to drive a car? Of course not, and just as driving under the influence is illegal because it increases one’s risk of causing an accident, driving while talking on a cell phone should be illegal for the exact same reason.

We cannot regulate everything that drivers do that can cause them to be a danger to themselves or others. But a specifically tailored law against an act that is clearly discernible to a police officer will lead to less police abuse than a broader law and will counteract behavior that puts drivers and pedestrians at a greater risk.

The inconvenience of not being able to use a cell phone is a small price to pay for increased safety for drivers and pedestrians. We should all be able to agree that of all the things government should be concerned with, public safety should be high on the list. This law would save lives by letting the government do its job.Brian Pierce

Phones are least distracting

Last week, an Urbana alderman vowed to propose legislation to ban the use of cell phones in vehicles. A similar piece of legislation is probably going to be proposed in the city of Champaign and is in response to three recent fatal accidents involving drivers using cell phones in their vehicles.

These accidents are, of course, extremely unfortunate. And there is undoubtedly a positive correlation between distracted driving – including by way of the use of cell phones – and the possibility of accidents. This includes the use of hands-free phones as well, and the research shows that the distraction of cell phone use is not in holding the cell phone, but just talking on it in the first place.

But this law is ill-conceived, much like it was in Chicago and in many other places where it had been enacted. There are two reasons for this: one is that research from April of 2006 has shown that cell phone use is not the most dangerous form of common distraction for drivers. The other is that there are laws in place in both the Champaign and Urbana municipal codes which imply the illegality of all forms of distracted driving.

The core of the problem is not cell phones per se, but rather distracted driving in general. Studies done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration prove that nearly 80 percent of car crashes (and 65 percent of near crashes) are a result of distracted driving of some sort.

Interestingly, while cell phones were the leading cause for distraction (followed by drowsiness), they were one of the least likely distractions to cause an accident. This is compared to activities ranging from changing the radio station to talking to other passengers in the car, both of which are more distracting than cell phone use. Reaching for a falling object increases one’s chances of being in an accident by about nine times, whereas talking on a cell phone only increases those chances by about 1.3 times.

The research is clear: cell phone use does distract drivers, like a wide range of other activities, but is nevertheless one of the safest of these. What the Champaign-Urbana response misses is that, while there have been three terrible and unfortunate accidents due to cell phone use, how many more unmentioned accidents happen due to far more distracting activities, or due to drowsiness at the wheel? This law banning drivers’ cell phone use isn’t going to put an end to the seriously dangerous distractions at the wheel.

Moreover, Champaign and Urbana codes are clear about careless driving, including that which results from distracted driving. The Champaign code states, simply, “No person shall drive any vehicle in a careless or negligent manner so as to endanger life or property.” The Urbana code states that “every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian upon any roadway…”

The use of cell phones while driving should not be different from any other risky, distracting activity. Unless we also want to legislate those additionally, we should be content with actually enforcing existing laws about careless driving. Lally Gartel