Cell phones and driving

For the past week, the Department of Transportation has been running a trial enforcement plan to stop people from talking on the phone while driving. Great idea, with a simple message: “Phone in One Hand. Ticket in the Other.” The plan is to step up enforcement and ticket drivers in Syracuse, NY and Hartford, CT if they are caught holding a cell phone while driving. According to transportation secretary Ray LaHood, “if a driver is caught with a cell phone in one hand, they’ll end up with a ticket in the other…It’s time for drivers to act responsibly, put their hands on the wheel and focus on the road.” Reducing the distracting effects of cell phones on driving is a good goal, and LaHood has been an active advocate for trying to eliminate needless distractions. Unfortunately, this enforcement campaign spreads misinformation by implying that it’s the “hand-held” aspect of cell phone use that causes the problem. In reality, the real distraction has nothing to do with having both hands on the wheel — it’s the conversation itself (coupled with the challenge of communicating with someone not in the car). Using a hands-free phone doesn’t eliminate the distraction, and it might even given people a false sense of confidence if they think that switching to a hands-free phone makes them safer.

Most of the laws banning cell phone use while driving have focused inappropriately and exclusively on hand-held phones. Whether or not cell phone use while driving should be regulated is a political question, but the cause of the distraction is an empirical one. Public officials do a disservice when they fail to convey the real reasons why using a cell phone while driving is dangerous.

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