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If you dial, don't drive

But, as Kim Hendren has learned, trying to force drivers to give up cell phone use is a tough battle.

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State Sen. Kim Hendren has made a legislative career out of trying to make Arkansas’s roads safer. He’s proposed bills to require motorcyclists to wear helmets and drivers hauling loads of gravel to cover them with tarps.

And session after session, he’s tried to get his fellow lawmakers to ban motorists from talking on hand-held cell phones — a step state legislatures around the country have considered. And session after session, including the one just finished, he’s failed.

“There’s thinking out across the country, in this state and in the legislature that anything we do to restrict a person’s freedom and rights is an undue imposition on them,” said Hendren, a Republican from Gravette. “In that line of thinking, I can get on a highway and drive any speed in any lane in any direction. That’s a prescription for tragedy for all of us.”

The number of cell phone users has gone from 4.3 million in 1990 to 231 million today. A study released in January by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company found that about three-quarters of cell phone users admit to talking while they drive, and — even more alarming — 19 percent say they send text messages.

Research leaves no doubt that talking on a cell phone increases a driver’s chances of being in an accident. That’s led to an explosion over the last few years of state laws restricting cell phone use on the road. But whether legislation is the answer — whether all those laws are fair, wise or even effective — hasn’t yet been settled. The key to reducing cell-phone use on the road may instead come from the business world: Insurance companies wanting to cut down on claims, and corporations wanting to protect themselves from lawsuits against cell-phone-using employees who cause wrecks while on the job.

First, some numbers.

There aren’t any from Arkansas, because law enforcement agencies just started tracking cell phone involvement in accidents this year, said Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration asked all states to start collecting that information, he said.

But even when numbers do become available from those reports, there’s a good chance they’ll be on the low side. Noting cell phone use “would be dependent on the driver being forthcoming with that information or if the law enforcement officer witnessed the use of the equipment before the crash,” Sadler said.

Elsewhere, though, study after study has shown that cell phone use and other “distracted driving” behaviors do increase a driver’s chances of being in a wreck.

The problem with laws that simply outlaw hand-held cell phones while driving — and with relying on new technology like embedding hands-free wireless equipment in new cars — is that those same studies show it’s the conversation, not the act of holding a phone, that’s the real issue. There’s no difference in accident rates for drivers using hand-held versus hands-free cell phones: Both are about four times more likely to be involved in a wreck than drivers who aren’t using a cell phone.

“When you start talking on a phone, you just don’t scan the visual environment like you usually would,” said David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who has done extensive research on cell phones and driving. “It’s called ‘inattention blindness’ — people look, but they just don’t see what they’re looking at. Brain activity associated with traffic events is suppressed when people talk on a cell phone.”

One study Strayer conducted compared people’s performance on a driving simulator first when they were legally drunk and later when they were sober, but talking on a cell phone.

“They were every bit as impaired talking on a cell phone as when they were drunk,” he said.

Another study found that cell phone use by young drivers ages their reaction times by 50 years. They took longer to hit the brakes and longer to get back up to regular speed, and increased the following distance between their car and the one in front — all behaviors typical of drivers over 65, and that increase the likelihood of accidents and impede the general flow of traffic.

Strayer said it’s common for cell phone users to acknowledge that other drivers cause problems when they talk on their cell phones, but that they themselves aren’t impaired.

“I was riding with one of my colleagues from work and he pulled out his cell phone to answer a call from his wife,” Strayer said. “He made a right turn and drove right through a crosswalk with a guard. He didn’t even realize he did it. If you don’t see it, you don’t notice it, you can’t be aware you’re impaired.”

Little Rock real estate agent Clyde Butler uses a cell phone regularly during the day, much of which he spends in his car. He has a Bluetooth hands-free system, but says using it can still be a distraction.

“There’ve been situations where, particularly in heavy traffic, where you’re on the phone and your attention is diverted a little,” he said. “Even with the Bluetooth I have a tendency to be diverted, but at least I’m a little more in control.”

Butler said he knows the only safe option is to “stay off the phone and pay attention,” but that the reality of his job means he has to be available or risk losing a sale or a client. He’d still support a ban on hand-held phones, however.

“I’m not necessarily looking forward to it passing, but it’s a good idea,” he said.

Hendren, too, admits to using his cell phone on the road, especially when he’s making the trip between Gravette and the Capitol. He uses a hands-free device as well.

“I know people say that makes you a little safer but not a whole lot — they say don’t talk on the phone at all. That’s probably good, but when I drive back and forth three or four hours to Little Rock, I’m able to take care of a lot of business and be a responsible driver.”

Only four states — California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — and the District of Columbia currently outlaw using hand-held cell phones while driving. (Some 40 foreign countries have banned their use while driving as well, including most European Union nations and Australia.) But every single state legislature in the country has considered some kind of cell phone restriction since 2001. Just last year, 38 states considered 133 separate measures related to cell phone use or other distracted-driving behaviors — although only seven states considered outright bans on hand-held phones. Laws limiting cell phone use in motor vehicles are on the books in 28 states, including Arkansas, which prohibits school bus drivers from using cell phones while they’re operating a bus.

In the 2007 legislative session, Hendren proposed not only requiring drivers to use hands-free devices, but also prohibiting young drivers from using cell phones altogether, as 13 other states have done. That bill also failed.

Joe Farren, director of public affairs for CTIA — The Wireless Association, said the industry group doesn’t support bans on hand-held cell phones because it believes laws should address the wider issue of distracted driving. Cell phone use does divert drivers’ attention, he said, but so do eating, drinking, fiddling with the radio, putting on make-up and dealing with children and pets in the car.

“We say, don’t narrowly craft a bill that targets one potential distraction,” Farren said. “… Let’s say you’re driving down the street and a police officer comes the other way, looks at you, and sees you’re fiddling with something. He pulls you over and says, ‘I’m going to ticket you for cell phone usage.’ The person says, ‘I was just putting sugar in my coffee.’ What does the officer do about that? Pat the person on the back and send them on their way? It doesn’t make any sense.”

And, he added, police officers already have the ability to ticket anyone who’s driving carelessly or recklessly, whatever the reason.

“Regardless of whether you’re putting sugar in your coffee or reading the Arkansas Times, if you’re an inattentive or reckless driver you should get a ticket, period,” Farren said. “We support that. In our view, there are already appropriate laws on the books to address this issue.”

In fact, research on distracted driving shows cell phone usage is not the most dangerous attention-diverter drivers deal with. That distinction goes to chasing after a moving object inside the car. But cell phone usage is by far the most common distraction, and therefore the one that’s cited in the most distracted-driving accidents.

More state legislatures are looking at laws that address the broader issue of distracted driving. They’re going after TVs and DVD players in vehicles, along with non-electronic problems like reading and personal grooming. Tennessee and Virginia have gotten so specific as to outlaw the display of pornographic videos in motor vehicles.

The laws are generally too new to tell whether they’re having any effect, but an early study of New York’s ban on hand-held cell phones isn’t hopeful. New York was the first state to pass such a law, in 2001. But the study showed that after an initial surge in compliance, drivers have gone back to using their hand-held cell phones as frequently as they did before the law went into effect.

Strayer said the problem is that cell phone users today treat the problem of distracted driving like people used to view drunken driving 30 years ago.

“People were still doing it, and just kind of chuckling about it,” he said. “That’s changed. There’s a stigma associated with it now. That’s what’s kind of lacking” with cell-phone use on the road, he said.

“We know the empirical data, but until someone is really upset with that activity they’re not going to comply with the law.”

There are some “really upset” individuals out there — people who’ve been injured or had loved ones killed in cell-phone-related accidents. So far, though, they haven’t reached the kind of critical PR mass that organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving were able to achieve in the 1980s.

But there is a growing push to limit cell phone use in the corporate world, Strayer said. Insurance companies are leading the fight, funding and conducting research and looking at ways to hit consumers in their wallets if they use cell phones when they drive.

Insurance providers could raise premiums based on crash data, Strayer said. They could require drivers who are involved in accidents to provide their cell phone records to the insurance company, to show whether they were on the phone at the time of the wreck.

“It could just be that if you want to get a reduction in your premium, you would have to allow the insurance company to look at your cell phone records if you’re involved in an accident,” Strayer said.

And some corporations outside the insurance industry are also taking a hard look at the financial benefits of keeping employees from using cell phones while they drive. Corporations can be held liable if an employee causes an accident while on company business, and a number have had to pay settlements in the millions already, Strayer said.

Arkansas’s Dyke Industries, a lumber company, is one of them: It paid more than $16 million several years ago to a 78-year-old woman who was disabled after she was hit by a company employee who was making a sales call on a cell phone. Stock firm Smith Barney paid $500,000 in a wrongful-death suit involving a broker making cold calls after hours on his personal cell phone. The state of Hawaii paid $2.5 million for its share of liability in another cell-phone-related injury suit.

“So there’s an interest at the corporate level to develop policies to limit liability,” Strayer said.

The petroleum industry is at the forefront, he said — possibly because major disasters like the Exxon Valdez have made oil companies more aware of the financial liabilities of safety issues in general.

And it’s not just a matter of companies issuing memos telling employees not to use their cell phones when they drive. As early as next year, corporations and parents — and even conscientious individuals — may be able to use technology being developed by a Canadian company called Aegis Mobility that would make it difficult or impossible to use cell phones when a car is in motion.

The technology uses the GPS tracking devices embedded in almost every cell phone to keep tabs on how fast the phone is moving when it’s being used, and whether it’s located on a road or not, said Dave Teater, the company’s vice president for public affairs.

Subscribers would sign up for the service through their cell phone carrier, and could choose what limits to place on phone use — from disabling the phone altogether while it’s moving, to routing calls to voice mail, to playing a message to the caller that the person appears to be driving and it might be dangerous to answer the phone.

Teater, who joined Aegis just over a week ago, has been an active crusader against in-car cell phone use since his 12-year-old son was killed by a driver talking on a cell phone.

“I just think what they’re doing will save lives,” he said of Aegis’ technology.

The same kind of limitations could be used on cars that are being manufactured with hands-free wireless equipment embedded in them, argues the Center for Auto Safety, a national lobbying organization based in Washington, D.C. Systems like GC’s OnStar and Ford’s new Sync let drivers access a variety of wireless services. OnStar can also diagnose mechanical problems and provide weather, traffic and stock updates. Sync will let users operate Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, mp3 players and other portable digital devices using voice commands.

The Center for Auto Safety earlier this year petitioned the National Highway and Transportation Safety Association to regulate such systems by requiring that they automatically shut off when the vehicle is moving.

Meanwhile, Hendren said he’ll continue his crusade in 2009, assuming he’s back in the legislature.

“If I am able to get re-elected I see no reason not to continue to try to move in that direction,” he said. “Each time, we do a little bit better.”

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