Our View: Talking, not hands, is the problem
April 29, 2009
It’s tough to argue with any legislation aimed at making Colorado’s roads safer for all users, but we fear that a proposed bill mandating the use of hands-free devices while driving misses the mark.
House Bill 1094, now making its way through the state Senate, would require most drivers to use a hands-free device while taking on their cell phones. Some drivers, including those younger than 18, school bus drivers and taxi drivers, would be prohibited from using their cell phones period. The bill partly is the result of several tragic traffic fatalities, including the November death of a 9-year-old Fort Collins girl killed by a driver who was distracted while talking on the phone.
We don’t dispute that the exploding popularity of cell phones in the past decade has become a public safety issue. Most studies indicate that talking on a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle increases the risk of an accident, particularly because it reduces a driver’s reaction time. But equally as important are studies that dispute the widely held belief that using hands-free devices – think Bluetooth headsets – minimizes those risks. Some of those studies, including a AAA Foundation for Public Safety report released in December, conclude that the “risks associated with using hand-held and hands-free cell phones while driving” are indistinguishable.
Further, research in some of the states that have passed hands-free legislation indicates that hand-held cell phone usage returns to pre-legislation levels without sustained media and law enforcement attention to the issue.
Naturally, we’re led to wonder whether a proposal such as H.B. 1094 is rooted in good science or false perceptions. The bill is backed by the Colorado State Patrol, County Sheriffs of Colorado and wireless service providers such as Verizon Wireless, which presumably stand to see increased business from the sale of hands-free devices.
State Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, opposes the bill. Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, voted for the bill primarily because it restricts the use of cell phones for drivers younger than 18. Sheriff Gary Wall also opposes the bill.
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The AAA study compiled statistics from two other studies and determined that using a cell phone while driving quadruples the risk of a crash. About half of all drivers report using a cell phone at least occasionally while operating their vehicle, and two-thirds believe using a hands-free device is safer than talking on a hand-held phone. But research indicates the act of holding the phone isn’t what increases the risk of accidents. Rather, it’s the fact that motorists pay less attention to the driving environment while concentrating on a telephone conversation.
If we want to effect meaningful change, perhaps lawmakers and law enforcement agencies should focus on reducing the use of cell phones – regardless of whether using a hands-free device – while driving. As such, why not encourage issuing citations for careless and reckless driving to motorists who commit other traffic infractions – such as failing to use turn signals – while talking on their phones?
Or perhaps we should ask ourselves the following question when preparing to make that next phone call while driving: Is this phone conversation important enough to quadruple the risk of a crash that could kill or injure myself and others?
At the end of the day, the use of cell phones while driving is the real issue, not whether your hand is holding the phone to your ear. Unfortunately, H.B. 1094 addresses the latter instead of the former.