Cell phones and Accidents: A Bad Connection?

A recent tragedy renews the call for a ban on cell phone use while driving, but a Canadian safety organization thinks such a ban is ill-advised.

A recent tragedy has renewed the call for a ban on cell phone use while driving, but a Canadian safety organization thinks such a ban is ill-advised.

The Feb. 1 car crash occurred just outside of Washington, D.C., on Interstate 495 in Largo, Md., and killed five people. Law enforcement agencies say that cell phone use either caused or contributed greatly to the crash.

Dawn Richardson, 20, was driving her Ford Explorer - which she had just purchased that day - on the Capital Beltway when she lost control of the vehicle while talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone. She had been following him to his parent''s house in Prince George''s County, Maryland, and lost him in traffic. Her vehicle crossed a 55-foot median, jumped a guardrail into oncoming traffic, and landed on a minivan carrying four tourists from Quebec.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident. The agency was already debating considering cell phone use as a potential distraction for drivers following a fatal crash last month in Illinois in which a driver talking on a phone drove into the path of an oncoming truck and was killed. NTSB investigator Dave Rayburn says that the agency is also looking into whether the guardrail design on the Capital Beltway contributed to the accident.

Although the Maryland accident received widespread attention in Canada, the Canada Safety Council says that there is little evidence that cell phones are making roads unsafe.

The group concedes that the inappropriate use of cell phones by drivers is part of a serious traffic safety problem, adding that distractions can be dangerous behind the wheel.

"Some say the solution is to ban drivers from using cell phones. The Canada Safety Council disagrees," declares a statement from the council.

Careless driving laws are already in place to prosecute drivers who do not make the driving task their top priority, the group notes. For example, Ontario drivers caught talking on cell phones, eating, reading or applying makeup are subject to a $325 fine and six demerit points. Similar penalties apply in other provinces in Canada and in many cities throughout the United States.

In fact, Maryland state legislator John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County) has sponsored a bill that would fine drivers up to $500 for talking on hand-held cell phones while they drive. So far, he has not been able to get the legislation out of committee.

He''s trying again, saying many of his colleagues admit they''ve changed their minds about it in the wake of the accident.

"It''s a tremendously dangerous situation that could cause great, great harm," Arnick said.

New York is the only state to band hand-held cell phone use by drivers, but more than 40 other states are considering similar legislation.

Opponents of a ban, such as the Canada Safety Council, point out that use of cell phones has skyrocketed in recent years with no corresponding increase in collisions. The number of wireless subscribers in Canada, for example, has more than quintupled, from 1.8 million at end of 1994 to over 10 million today, while road fatalities dropped by 10 percent.

The Canada Safety Council is calling for more public awareness and education, and strict enforcement of the existing laws, rather than an out-and-out ban of cell phones.

"Regulation could negate the safety benefits of having a phone in the car. When you''re stuck in traffic, calling to say you''ll be late can reduce stress and make you less inclined to drive aggressively to make up lost time," the council points out.

"Our society has to a great extent condoned multi-tasking while driving," it continues in the statement. "Most vehicles have cup holders. Many also have complex radios and sound systems. Omnipresent drive-throughs encourage drivers to pick up food and beverages. Drivers eat, discipline their kids, use cell phones and even shave or apply make-up on the road."

In a study released last summer, five years of U.S. crash data (1995-1999) were analyzed by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. That study estimated that about 13 percent of all collisions involved driver distraction. Only 1.5 per cent of these distraction-related collisions involved cell phones. Other distractions were far more common, including the car radio or CD player (11.4 per cent), and other passengers (10.9 per cent).

"A cell phone ban would be counterproductive, irresponsible and unenforceable. There are far more effective measures to save lives and enhance traffic safety," says the Canada Safety Council.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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