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CONFESSIONS OF A CELL-PHONE ADDICT

No issue now under discussion offers a better opportunity for profound philosophical debate than the question of whether drivers should be barred from using hand-held cell phones.

I kid you not. This issue has everything.

You can ponder risk vs. security. You can think about whether individual rights trump the common good. You can argue about whether government is some horrible, meddlesome creature, or whether one of its primary tasks is to protect human beings from human failure. As an individual, you can wonder whether your own personal convenience is worth the possibility that some distracted driver on his cell phone might smash into your car, and perhaps even kill you.

There is a purity about the cell phone argument because it does not entail the profoundly difficult moral and religious principles raised by an issue like abortion. Wherever you stand on abortion, you can't deny that the moral status of the fetus is a huge deal.

Nobody has to have comparable worries about the cell phone, a marvelous invention but also an inert object that has no moral standing of its own. Because the cell phone issue is never likely to be a wedge issue, conservatives and liberals, libertarians and communitarians can argue peaceably and even come down on unexpected sides.

The core principle of libertarians, for example, is that government shouldn't legislate except to protect your life and your property. But the case against yakking on cell phones in cars is precisely that doing so threatens the life and property of other drivers.

As someone who regularly calls attention to the inconsistencies of politicians, I welcome this issue as a chance to face up to my own contradictions. I confess: I am a big-time user of my cell phone while driving. Worse, I love doing so.

Hard as I may try, I regularly fall behind in returning phone calls. Being able to put myself right with friends during drive time is a wonderful gift. It's also great to be able to set up interviews, confirm appointments and do a million other things during commuting hours that would otherwise be lost.

But cell phone users of the world, admit it: We all know that it's hard to dial someone up and maintain full and complete concentration on the road. We've all been angry at the driver who blows a red light while shooting the breeze. No matter how much we like our cell phones, we cannot for an instant pretend that they are not a distraction -- even if we would all insist that we are oh, so careful in using them.

Thus, even avid vehicular cell users chuckle and occasionally cheer at the bumper sticker that declares: "HANG UP AND DRIVE."

Politicians know this, which is why an anti-cell phone movement is building around the nation. The New York Legislature just approved a bill that would ban the state's drivers from using hand-held cell phones. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 39 other states are considering such laws, according to the Associated Press. Many municipalities have already them.

"Finally, we will get the bird back in the cage," New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz told the AP. Ortiz noted that when he started campaigning for the ban five years ago, "people were making a lot of fun of me." No more. "It eventually became not only an issue at the state level, but on the national level," he said proudly. The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that 87 percent of New York voters favored the ban.

That number has to include not only those who never, ever use cell phones in their cars, but also guilt-ridden users such as myself.

So where should we end up? My own contradictions on this are already obvious. Personally, I would hate it if government told me I could no longer use my cell phone in my car. But, also personally, I would hate it even more if my wife or my children were hurt by a driver who was so engaged in making phone calls that he forgot he was driving. And, not to pretend to too much altruism, I wouldn't want that guy to hit me, either.

Thus a hunch: If enough studies show that cell phone users are, indeed, dangerous characters on the road, laws against them will pass all over the country. Assemblyman Ortiz will be able to claim prophetic powers. And we automotive cell users may, simultaneously, feel annoyed and relieved.

Washington Post Writers Group

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