Cellular phones have become a ubiquitous part of U.S. society over the last decade. But their convenience comes at a price.
First there was fear that cellular phones leaked radiation, causing brain cancer. Then they were found to ignite sparks at gas stations. The latest debate is over cellular phone use in cars, where they often prove to be a dangerous distraction to drivers.
In 1999, Brooklyn, Ohio, became one of the first jurisdictions in the United States to forbid drivers from using handheld cellular phones while driving. At least 10 other local municipalities have done the same.
California, Massachusetts and Florida have already enacted statewide laws limiting cellular-phone use and 40 others have considered following suit.
On a federal level, Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., and Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J., introduced legislation in May that would force states to ratify laws halting handheld cellular-phone use or lose federal highway funds.
Just how bad is this problem? And what is governments role in solving it? Are hands-free devices the way to go or do they distract drivers as well? Our panel of experts makes the call.
Jordan Goldes is the press secretary for Rep. Gary Ackerman, sponsor of the Call Responsibly and Stay Healthy Act 2001 (CRASH).
"When we are taught to drive, we [are] told to keep both hands on the wheel -- one at ten oclock and one at two oclock. But with the increasing use of cell phones by drivers, the position has evolved to one hand -- or in many cases one knee -- on the wheel and one hand on the cell phone."
"The most basic role of government is to protect the safety of its citizens, whether its abuse of cell phones or wearing seat belts or obeying speed limits. This is what [CRASH] is doing. Its not even a partisan issue. You have republicans and democrats all over the country who are supporting this type of legislation in their respective states."
"Our legislation would ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving. It would not prevent people from talking on the phone while driving; it would simply not allow them to hold their phone while driving. People could use hands-free devices, speakerphones, earpieces, microphones. We dont want to take phones away from drivers; we just want to make them safer."
Dee Yankoskie is the manager of wireless education programs for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
"Given the states that have reported on accidents involving wireless phone use, cell phones arent contributing to a significant number. What we want state legislatures to do, if they are concerned with this issue, is to take a three-pronged approach to the larger issue of inattentive driving."
"Number one: We want all 50 states to [change] accident forms to read, Was there distraction involved? If so, what was it? Was the driver talking on the phone, drinking a beverage, did they drop something and were reaching to pick it up, were they eating their lunch?"
"Number two: No new legislation is necessary. Right now, law enforcement already has broad authority if they witness somebody driving erratically or deviating from their lane. No matter what activity theyre engaging in, they can be pulled over and penalized for their irresponsible driving."
"Number three. We believe education is the key. An overwhelming majority of the studies that have looked at this issue have said just that. If you truly want to be effective, sanctions arent the way to go, education is."
Adam D. Thierer
Adam D. Thierer is director of telecommunications studies for the Cato Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy research foundation
headquartered in Washington, D.C.
"Statistics show that influences outside of the car are by far the most distracting. But inside the car, things like tinkering with your car stereo or CD player or engaging in a conversation or an argument with a passenger, your child or your spouse are the types of activities that prove to be far more distracting and dangerous [than cell phones]. Yet we dont try to ban those activities."
"So now were talking about a technology-specific ban for a unique class of activity -- that of dialing up cell phones, which are not necessarily as dangerous as people make them out to be -- and [the ban is] unnecessary in light of the fact that technology is really solving this problem already. What I mean by that is you have devices -- hands-free devices, clip-on microphones and ear pieces, along with speed dialing -- that make it so you can, with one punch of a button, make a call without ever having to have a device in your hands."
"Increasingly were seeing onboard communications devices integrated into automobiles. With the advent of voice-recognition technology, you wont have to do anything more than simply say, Call home, or Call mom, and the phone will do the rest. Its important for the policymakers to exercise a degree of patience and humility and understand that technology is solving this problem. New laws are not only unnecessary, but might impose added obligations on our personal liberties."
Tom Dingus is the director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
"Weve done research on cell-phones and other handheld and in-vehicle devices in terms of distraction and attention demand. The studies range from simulator studies to on-route studies over a period of about 15 years."
"Cell phones create a distraction. Theres no doubt about that. The distraction is not only the manual manipulation of phones but also the conversation that creates risk. Traditionally in an automobile there is nothing that is so critical that regardless of the traffic situation, I need to do this right now. People dont want to lose a call so theyre willing to behave inappropriately in a driving situation to avoid losing the call."
"The other aspects of cell phones are more standard. The dialing task, for example, is a lot different than adjusting the radio. The conversation task has some risk associated with it. The combination of the three is killing a fair number of people."
"On top of it, the cycle on the cell phone in terms of technology is roughly 18 months. Now you have Internet-capable phones, which are more complex and more capable. If you project that people are going to be using those in cars, as well as PDAs and other portable devices that are increasing in use rapidly, this could be an epidemic."