The bumper-sticker message “Hang up and drive” is being echoed by Connecticut state legislators, who are considering a ban on the use of handheld phones while driving.
More than 60 state lawmakers are publicly supporting legislation in favor of restricting drivers’ cell phone use, and a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University shows that 86 percent of Connecticut voters agree with them.
Some of these same voters, however, are also among the 85 percent of cell phone users who admit to talking on the phone while on the road.
Similar legislation has been on the table for the past few years, but more lawmakers than ever are supporting it now, in part because concern about cell phones has increased. Cell phones are now commonly used for web-surfing, game-playing, text-messaging and picture-taking, as well as phone calls, all of which can distract drivers.
State Representative Richard Roy, a proponent of the proposed bill, said he views the law as more of a restriction than a total ban. He said that cell phones would certainly be permissible in an emergency situation.
“This is not a panacea, but if we can provide a modicum of safety, at least that’s something,” he said.
Critics of the proposed ban say that such a law doesn’t take into account the many other distractions in the car such as eating, drinking coffee or talking to passengers. In August 2003, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drivers are actually less distracted by phones than by other activities, like leaning over to reach for objects on the dashboard or car seat.
Joe Farren, the director of public affairs at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, said that the data compiled at accident sites has demonstrated that cell phones were involved in less than 0.1 percent of car accidents. By focusing solely on phones, policy-makers are failing to look at the broader issue of distracted driving in general, he said.
He added that the CTIA encourages safe and responsible driving and advocates educating drivers on how to use their cell phones safely in their vehicles.
“Education, not legislation, is the answer,” he said.
A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggested that hands-free devices, which would be permissible under the proposed law, can be just as dangerous as hand-held phones. Although the physical act of dialing and holding the phone would be banned, the mental distraction of the actual conversation would remain a serious danger under the proposed law.
Roy said that cell phone use was by far the worst of possible driving distractions because of the cognitive abilities lost when a driver is involved in a conversation.
“Sipping coffee or biting a sandwich doesn’t take a whole lot of brainpower,” he said.
Several Yale students expressed ambivalence about the proposed law. David Resnick ’08 said that although he often uses his phone in the car, he can see why it is an issue.
“We were talking in psych class about how being on the phone can increase unintentional blindness and be dangerous on the road,” Resnick said.
Jacob Siegel ’08 said that cell phone use is already covered in current legislation.
“It’s a little repetitive because there is already a law against distracted driving,” he said.
Over a dozen other states are considering restricting drivers’ cell phone use.