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Cell phones: What were safety officials thinking?

Post by Cheryl Tucker on July 28, 2009 at 7:54 pm with No Comments »
July 28, 2009 7:54 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Safety officials missed a golden opportunity

The federal agency charged with protecting the public’s safety on our nation’s highways has failed in that mission for the past six years – at least when it comes to warning drivers about the danger of using their cell phones while behind the wheel.

Back in 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had research pointing to the significant dangers posed when drivers use cell phones. It estimated that those drivers caused 955 deaths and 240,000 accidents in 2002.

But the NHTSA withheld those findings from the public, and agency officials refused to do a large-scale study of cell phone risks. Why? Because officials at the Department of Transportation didn’t want to antagonize members of Congress who controlled the highway budget.

Keeping legislators happy vs. saving lives. How could "traffic safety" officials get that one so wrong?

Since 2003, cell phone use by drivers has exploded. An estimated 12 percent of drivers now are on the phone at any given time. One has only to stand on any corner in Pierce County and count the number of drivers with a phone to their ear to recognize that the 12 percent estimate is likely low. And this is a state that prohibits use of hand-held phones by drivers – though only as a secondary offense. That means they have to be doing something else illegal before they can be pulled over and ticketed.

Drivers who talk on cell phones are four times more likely to cause an accident than those who don’t. The most dangerous time is when they take their eyes off the road to call or answer their phone.

That’s why text messaging while driving is even more dangerous than phoning. A new study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that texting increases a driver’s chance of causing a crash or near-accident a whopping 23 times.

Fortunately, state lawmakers got ahead of the curve and made texting while driving a primary offense. And if they’d had received a warning from the NHTSA back in 2003, they might have had the guts to make cell phone use while driving a primary offense, too.

Better late than never. The fact that state drivers so blatantly disregard the existing ban on cell phone use shows that it needs to be a primary offense.

That should be a goal for lawmakers.

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