The National Safety Council's call for all 50 states to ban the use of cell phones by drivers deserves support. Evidence is building that one of the most important uses for a cell phone is to call the police to report a serious auto accident caused by someone who was distracted by talking on his cell phone.
It's a step that even the safety council acknowledges is unlikely to be widely adopted any time soon. But all the research points to the conclusion that driving while phoning is at least as dangerous to the driver -- and to everyone else on the road -- as driving while borderline drunk.
So even if the call for making driving while yakking a crime akin to driving while intoxicated is unlikely to be realized any time soon, just the attempt will serve the council's educational mission and hopefully lead to a reduction in the number of people who ignore both the scientific evidence and common sense of the matter.
Studies at the University of Utah, Harvard University and by British insurance industry experts all have come to the strong conclusion that people engaged in a phone call effectively send some of their brains to the person on the other end -- making it unavailable for use on your end.
In most cases, that is not a concern. But when either party to a phone call is simultaneously operating a motor vehicle, it matters a great deal. With a significant portion of one's higher brain function on the other line, so to speak, drivers in clinical tests show a marked tendency to drive more slowly, drift from lane to lane, pass awkwardly, fail to see traffic safety and directional signs, and miss turns and exits.
The result, clearly, is an impaired driver. A nation full of such drivers, figures the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis, adds up to 636,000 accidents, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths a year. The national financial toll for such calls, now responsible for 6 percent of all crashes: $43 billion.
And don't think it helps to use one of those hands-free gizmos, even though it is a loophole in the cell phone ban already on the books in New York and five other states. The Utah research was firm that the damage to driving skill is a matter of where your brain is, not where your hands are.
Few other distractions for drivers fall into the same category as cell-phone use. Talking to a passenger in the same car certainly isn't. The person in the next seat is reacting to the same environmental cues as the driver, aware of weather, traffic and other things, more helpful as a second pair of eyes and easier to politely ignore when necessary.
Listening to a radio, as long as you don't spend more than a second or two adjusting it, is passive and not such a distraction. And such maddeningly stupid activities as trying to shave, apply make-up or read while driving just don't happen as often, or lull drivers into a false sense of security, as cell phone use has become.
So, make it illegal? That's not likely to happen any time soon. But, then, campaigns to require seat belt use, safety seats for children and even to crack down on drunken driving took a while, and became law only after a lengthy period of public education.
Maybe, just maybe, the public education part of this campaign will be all that is necessary to persuade people to drive now, talk later.