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Ban on cell phone use by drivers isn't likely

Though it would save lives.

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Arkansas prohibits all texting by drivers, one of 35 states to do so. And Arkansas places other restrictions on drivers' use of wireless telephones, depending on location, the type of phone used, and the driver's age. A State Police spokesman said that Arkansas could be considered "pro-active" in its response to the problems caused by drivers on the phone.

Still, what Arkansas has done, what any state has done, is not nearly enough, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which last month recommended that the states ban all use of wireless phones by drivers. More than 3,000 deaths on American highways last year were related to driver distraction, according to official records, and most of those involved wireless phones. The actual number of fatalities was almost certainly much higher, because driver distraction caused by wireless phones is hard to prove, unless there's a witness or the driver himself confesses (if he's able).

How close is Arkansas to this total prohibition sought by the NTSB? Not very. State Sen. Jerry Taylor of Pine Bluff was the co-sponsor of a new law prohibiting the use of hand-held wireless phones in school zones and highway work zones. He believes there are too many distracted drivers on the road, and he supports the total ban on texting. But when asked if a total ban on cell phones would be approved by the Arkansas legislature, he said, "I don't much think it could be." Furthermore, Taylor said that before he could support such a bill himself, "I'd have to know more about it than I do now. If you've got a hands-free phone, I don't see why that's any more distracting than talking to your seatmate."

The NTSB has no authority to impose its recommendations on the states, but the agency does have considerable influence with federal regulators and legislators. Taylor said a total ban on the use of wireless phones while driving wouldn't be approved by the Arkansas legislature in the foreseeable future unless the federal government does what it did with seat-belt laws — that is, withhold gasoline-tax turnback funds from states that don't follow the feds' recommendations.

Rep. Fred Allen of Little Rock, co-sponsor with Taylor of Act 37 of 2011, also doubts that a total ban on drivers' use of cell phones is feasible in the current Arkansas legislature. "There's no question that it's [driving while talking] dangerous," Allen said, "but some people call it being efficient. We're all creatures of habit. Sometimes habits become addictions, and it's hard to break an addiction." He said, however, that some Arkansas trucking companies now require their drivers to pull over and stop before using their phones.

Announcing the NTSB's recommendation last month, the group's chairman, Deborah Hersman, said "No e-mail, no text, no update, no call is worth a human life." But so far, not a single state has banned all cell-phone use by drivers. And there is no organized campaign in favor of such a ban, no group promoting it the way MADD promotes strict laws against drunken driving, even though studies have shown that talking on the phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated, whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free. Even with a hands-free phone, a driver's concentration is on his conversation more than on his driving, researchers say.

The American Automobile Association, a sometime supporter of new safety laws, has not come out in favor of a total ban on the use of cell phones while driving. The Arkansas State Police, who have supported highway-safety legislation in the past, would have to see a specific bill before making a decision, a spokesman said. A spokesman for the state Highway and Transportation Department said the agency had made no decisions concerning new laws on cell phone usage.

On the other hand, the opposition to a total ban on cell phones for drivers would be huge and passionate — the electronics companies that make the phones, the automobile manufacturers that are installing hands-free phones in their vehicles, the large and growing number of people who use their phones while driving and consider it an entitlement.

Every proposed restriction on use of wireless phones by drivers prompts objections from people who say that it's another government restriction on individual freedom. No one makes that argument against drunk-driving laws anymore, though the cases are identical.

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