Sunday, October 18, 2009

Weekly Opinion/Editorial
by Steve Fair

In June, Oklahoma State House Speaker Chris Benge- R, Tulsa, authorized one hundred and twenty “interim” studies to study issues. One of the studies was requested by State Representatives Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, and Danny Morgan, D-Prague to study cell phone and texting use while driving. Tibbs chairs the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, in which Morgan is a member.

Morgan, who is the House minority leader, has filed bills to ban cell phone use in cars the past two legislative sessions, but it hasn’t gotten anywhere. Morgan remains undeterred in his attempts to emphasize the risks of distracted driving. "Erratic driving due to cell phone use is only getting worse as drivers continue to overestimate their own ability to juggle phone use while behind the wheel," Morgan claims.

Currently six states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington) as well as Washington DC ban handheld cell phone for all drivers. With the exception of Washington State, these laws are all primary enforcement—an officer may ticket a driver for using a handheld cell phone while driving without any other traffic offense-taking place.
No state completely bans all types of cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for all drivers, but many prohibit cell phone use by certain segments of the population.

For example, twenty-one state and DC ban all cell phone use by novice drivers (under 21). Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now ban text messaging for all drivers and nine states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.

At last week’s interim study at the State Capital, an emotional Jennifer Smith told the story of how her mother was killed in a car accident last September by a driver distracted on a cell phone who ran a red light. The emotional and passionate Smith advocates banning all cell phone use in moving vehicles.

Scott Watkins, director of the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, also spoke at the meeting and said there is no evidence to show that talking on a cell phone is more of a distraction than other distractions. Watkins said that in 2008 only 2.3% of car wrecks were due to driver distracted with cell phones.

That number may be higher because currently cell-phone use is self-reported at the time of an accident. That means drivers can admit or deny they were on their cell phone or texting. Current Oklahoma law requires that a subpoena or court order be issued to get cell phone records to find out if a driver was using their phone using the phone/texting. Law enforcement would like to be able to get that information without getting a court order or subpoena.

In 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 34,017 fatalities in 2008 from auto accidents. According to the NHTSA, thirty one percent of fatal crashes in 2008 were alcohol related. Mark Edwards, Director of Traffic Safety at the American Automobile Association, believes driver distraction is a close second. Edward says, "The research tells us that somewhere between 25-50 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in this country really have driver distraction as their root cause." Distractions include rubbernecking, driver fatigue, kids/passengers, reading maps or other documents and grooming. The AAA study said that talking on your mobile while driving will increase crash risks fourfold.

In a study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, people who send text messages while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a crash (or what they call a near-crash event) than nondistracted drivers. Prevention magazine says that at least eighty five percent of cell phone users talk on their phone while driving.

Technology has advanced at such a rate that lawmakers believe it essential they deal with it. Not only is the Oklahoma state legislature taking up the issue of cell phone use while driving, but so are state cities and municipalities. The Duncan City Council already has the issue on their radar screen.

The problem of people not excercising common sense and using electronics of all types while driving is certainly a problem. I drive over 50K miles each year and have seen about every “distraction” you can imagine by passing drivers. It’s also true that modern communication technology has made it almost seemingly impossible for some people to be “off the grid” for even an hour while driving, but with the amount of traffic laws on the books, I’m not sure adding another is the answer.

It seems rather discriminating for us to single out just one cause of distraction for possible ticketing. Shouldn’t we make it illegal for people to “groom” while driving? How often have you seen a woman putting on make-up or a guy shaving while passing you at 75? How about making it illegal for people to “look back” (rubberneck) while driving?

These proposed “cell phone” laws take away individual personal liberty in the name of personal safety. Individual personal security can’t be legislated and these laws are intrusive and unnecessary.

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