Mixed signals on mobile phone safety

The States is engaged in heated debate about safety issues surrounding wireless phones

It's National Wireless Safety Week, which has researchers, academics, analysts and lobbyists arguing more vehemently about the potential dangers of wireless phones.

Sponsored by the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), the wireless industry's trade group and lobbying organisation, National Wireless Safety Week is intended to raise awareness about the safety benefits of owning a mobile phone, underscored by a variety of mottos by carriers ranging from AT&T Wireless' "Arrive Safely" to Nextel's "Smart Drivers Talk Safely".

Not entirely altruistic, the wireless industry hopes its safety message will generate new sales and ward off unwanted legislation.

On Tuesday, two lawmakers introduced federal legislation that would ban the use of mobile phones by drivers in the United States and withhold federal highway funds from states that fail to implement the ban.

No one is quite sure, however, how safe or dangerous a mobile phone might be.

"We all know of crashes that occurred because some driver was distracted. We all know of fatalities. But is it two or 1,000?" said Donald Reinfurt, deputy director of the safety research centre at the University of North Carolina. "The data is so inconclusive at this point."

And there are other unanswered questions. Wireless phones might be dangerous emitters of radiation with the potential to cause cancer and other ailments, or they could be as innocuous as a child's teething toy. They can be lifesavers when calling police or simply useless because emergency personnel cannot pinpoint the location of a desperate caller.

To be sure, mobile phones have proven critical in saving lives amid car wrecks and other calamities. They allow a motorist to alert authorities to speeding drivers or to those who appear impaired by alcohol or drugs. Some women's groups collect unwanted wireless phones and give them to victims of domestic violence for their personal protection.

The argument over the safety of mobile phones can be heard on three fronts: it's in Washington DC, and in the statehouses where lawmakers are struggling over whether to pass cell phone driving bans. It's in the research labs, where scientists on Tuesday released a new study addressing whether the radiation generated by mobile phones is dangerous. And it's in the corporate boardrooms of mobile phone makers and service providers, who face a looming deadline to make it possible for police to locate each and every mobile phone user in emergencies.

The new US federal legislation introduced Tuesday by representative Gary Ackerman and senator Jon Corzine mirrors many aspects of similar legislation introduced within the past two years by lawmakers in 40 states.

Those 40 states have sought to ban or limit drivers' phone use. Some laws have sought to make it an extra point on a person's driver's license if a crash is caused because the driver was distracted using a mobile phone. Others have wanted to ban bus drivers from using phones, or to force teenagers on conditional-use licenses to lose their driving privileges if caught using a phone while driving.

Some of the laws have proposed allowing phones in cars, but only if the phones are operated with a hands-free headset.

But since the initial rush of legislation, 14 states in the US have outright rejected the bills. Oregon even passed a bill prohibiting its cities and towns from passing laws banning mobile phone use by drivers. As of Tuesday, not one bill had been enacted into law. If not voted down, the bills have been stalled in committee and are unlikely to see the law books.

Robert Shelton, executive director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told a House panel in early May that it would be "premature" to ban drivers' use of mobile phones because of what he called a "lack of data on impact of such a distraction."

"At this point, we don't have data that show this would be the answer," he told the panel.

The data itself is a mixed bag. The NHTSA estimates that as many as 30 percent of last year's 6.3 million accidents were caused by driver inattention, and phones "are a significant safety concern," according to testimony given by Shelton to a congressional committee.

Earlier this month, the Automobile Association of America reported its own study that found accidents were more likely to be caused by a driver changing a radio station, adjusting the air conditioning, or eating or drinking than using a mobile phone, the research concluded.

In fact, using a mobile phone accounted for 1.5 percent of all the accidents between 1995 and 1999, the study shows. Of the 10 most common driver distractions, it ranked next to last, just above smoking.

Some people still believe there will be state bans, and ultimately a national ban not unlike the one in Japan, where the use of all electronic devices while driving has been banned for at least three years.

Fran Bents, vice president at research facility Dynamic Sciences, sees the data every day. Dynamic Sciences has performed more than two dozen studies in the past three years for the US government's defence and civilian agencies, plus dozens of local governments and academic institutions both domestically and internationally.

The organisation believes that between 450 and 1,000 traffic deaths per year are caused by mobile phones. She also cites recent public opinion polls in which 85 percent of Americans say they want a ban on drivers' mobile phone usage.

"The momentum isn't going away from these laws," she said. "The very fact that public opinion polls now show that the majority of citizens want this is proof enough."

Bents has testified at the same statehouses where bills have been defeated. She thinks the bills have withered because of groups like the CTIA, which has poured millions of dollars into lobbying efforts against bans.

While congressional members debate possible restrictions on mobile phone use, other safety issues centering on the phones are also getting attention.

Public dispatchers can have difficulty tracking information, such as the caller's phone number and location, from a cell phone.

In an effort to improve the quality and reliability of 911 emergency services from wireless phones, the Federal Communications Commission has been active in adopting rules for the implementation of enhanced 911 for wireless services.

Three years ago, the FCC required carriers to provide the telephone number of the 911 caller and the general location of the mobile site or base station to the Public Safety Answering Point. The FCC implemented this rule as a way for dispatchers to re-establish a call if it were terminated and to get a general sense of the location of the caller.

Beginning 1 October, the FCC will require wireless carriers to offer technology that would identify the precise location of wireless 911 calls to within about 50 metres to 100 metres for most calls.

"We haven't selected a particular technology but have structured the rules to allow any technology that can reasonably provide the location of a handset," said Daniel Grosh, attorney in the policy division of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. "The carriers are free to use any technology that can comply with the rules."

As mobile phones become more popular, consumers are becoming more anxious to know whether the phones cause brain cancer or tumors.

Some experts say radio frequency waves emitted by the handsets could pose a risk to people because radio frequency energy, especially at high power levels, can rapidly heat biological tissue and cause health problems.

Two studies released last year by the Journal of the American Medical Association and The New England Journal of Medicine suggested the opposite: mobile phone use does not increase the risk of developing brain cancer.

Researchers of the studies concluded that mobile phones weren't linked to malignant tumors and that cancer patients didn't use their mobile phones substantially more than those who didn't have the disease.

In addition, a report released Tuesday by the General Accounting Office said that research to date from the Food & Drug Administration and other major health agencies "does not show radio frequency energy emitted from mobile phones have adverse health effects, but there is not yet enough information to conclude that they pose no risk".

The GAO added, however, that other studies have raised questions about possible cancer and non-cancer effects that require further investigation. The GAO said the World Health Organisation is still conducting research -- including additional epidemiological, laboratory and animal studies -- to address the issue. The US government sponsors and supports some of the research, according to the GAO.

"The consensus of the FDA and the WHO is that research to date doesn't show cell phone radio frequency to have adverse health affects," said Peter Guerrero, director of physical infrastructure for the GAO.

"But the important caveat is that there's not enough information to conclude they pose no risk," Guerrero said.

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