States target distracted drivers

ByJayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
March 29, 2009, 10:59 PM

— -- Steven Blanchard, an emergency room doctor in Arkansas, testified last month in favor of a bill that bans all texting while driving in that state.

He had a very personal reason to do so: His 27-year-old son killed himself last fall, a couple of months after crashing his car into one being driven by a father of three, killing him.

Arkansas state Rep. Ray Kidd, a Democrat, has strong support for the bill banning texting, which was drafted by the college-student daughter of the man killed, Paul Davidson. Hilary Davidson originally proposed that all behind-the-wheel cellphone usage be banned in Arkansas, but Kidd convinced her he couldn't get the support for a more sweeping measure.

Highway safety experts can't seem to agree on whether hands-free cellphones are enough of a distraction to merit bans, despite a push that started in January by the National Safety Council. Many question the value of cellphone laws at all.

Still, if the campaign to ban hands-free cellphones gains steam, it could spell more problems for the already struggling auto industry. The safety chief for Ford Motor f visited safety groups and government officials around Washington, D.C., last month to drum up support for the Sync hands-free system offered on all Ford models. The system is for talking, texting and entertainment.

Jim Vondale, Ford's safety vice president, says his company's research has shown that when drivers were asked to perform several driving tasks, such as changing the radio, there was no difference in the ability to do the tasks while using the hands-free system compared with not talking at all. The Sync study participants were asked to acknowledge a pedestrian when she appeared on the highway shoulder and their response time — or lack of response — was monitored. The company found Sync users responded more quickly to the pedestrian's presence than when they were using handheld devices.

"Let's focus on where the real risks are: handheld phones, younger drivers, texting, people driving school buses and people driving mass transit," Vondale says.

John Ulczycki, the National Safety Council's vice president of research, communication and advocacy, says, "We haven't reached the point of being convinced that (Ford's) technology is such that we should change our policy."

Maintaining focus

Many high-end vehicles have hands-free or voice-recognition features for phones built in. BMW, for example, has the Bluetooth hands-free technology in all of its cars and works to ensure that all cellphones are compatible. General Motors gm is touting the hands-free capabilities of its OnStar satellite communications system.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers' Wade Newton says the group's members, which include all major automakers except Honda, have signed agreements that their in-vehicle communications systems are designed so drivers can "maintain the focus level necessary while driving."

Auto and some safety experts say states are moving too quickly to enact laws that may have little effect. Legislators have introduced more than 20 bills that would prohibit handheld mobile devices and at least four that would ban hands-free phoning.

Even the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has concluded hands-free talking can be as risky as holding the phone, believes the laws have limitations.

While it "makes sense based on the evidence of crash risk, we have little confidence a law would make any difference," because of the enforcement difficulty, spokesman Russ Rader says.

Kidd says, "A lot of people have asked us how we expect to enforce it," and he acknowledges it will be a challenge.

'If we save one life'

The Davidson crash — and its aftermath — moved Kidd to take action. And it helped convince many of his colleagues. When Blanchard testified for the bill before a House committee last month, Kidd says, "There wasn't a dry eye in the room. You could have heard a pin drop.

"If we save one life, it's worth it," he says.

Jacy Good, who was injured and her parents killed when their car was hit by a driver who ran a red light while talking on a cellphone, spoke movingly in favor of a ban on handheld cellphone use in Pennsylvania.

"My parents had their lives stolen. They'll never get to fulfill their dreams of retirement or be the grandparents they wanted to be," said Good, according to a report by WGAL-TV. "All because a young man turned left on a red light talking on his cellphone, not paying attention to the road."

It is one of eight bills introduced in the state's legislature involving cellphones this year.

Erratic driving

CTIA-The Wireless Association favors education about the risks, a position shared by the Governors Highway Safety Association. GHSA also supports the safety council's goal of persuading businesses to institute their own company prohibitions.

CTIA doesn't take a stand for or against cellphone bans while driving, but spokesman John Walls says laws that consider distracted driving overall without targeting phones make more sense. Motorists who are "driving erratically" because they are on a cellphone shouldn't be punished more harshly than someone who does so because they are eating, for example.

"It's well documented that there are numerous distractions — including being drowsy — that can have greater and more severe consequences on your driving behavior," Walls says.

Indeed, a study by Virginia Tech found that reading or turning around to get something in the back seat while driving can be riskier than talking on a cellphone. "While cellphones may not be the riskiest activity, they are more common ... and are the one distraction that contributes to the greatest crash involvement," Ulczycki says.

Davidson agrees. "I still talk on my cellphone, and it's not as bad as texting, but it wouldn't hurt to pass a law against it," she says. "People are talking on their phones all the time and cutting people off even when they are using hands-free devices."

A sampling of distracted-driver state legislation:

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