Stop demonizing cell phones!

Stop demonizing cell phones! The truth is, most people simply don't know how to drive.

COMMENTARY--A car swerves into your lane. When you see the driver is talking on a cellular phone you shout, "Those #$@!&! things oughtta be banned!" But let's not stop there. If you look at what people do on cell phones, you'll see that banning the phones is only the beginning--there's a lot more we should get rid of.

One of the reasons cell phones are such a hazard is that people hold them, keeping one of their hands from the wheel. That's why many of the proposed laws ban hand-held cell phones. But that's just a start. If holding a cell phone is dangerous, so is holding a hamburger. That's why a law should mandate that McDonald's sell only hands-free Big Macs in their drive throughs.

But that's not enough. Dialing the phone is also a problem because pressing buttons is a distraction. So our third law will ban anything in the car that might have switches or buttons, like car stereos and those distracting air conditioners.

We all know that even with voice-activated, hands-free phones, the driver is still distracted--they're so engrossed in their conversations they don't pay attention to the road.

But the only thing more distracting than talking on a cell phone is talking to a real person next to you.

Whenever someone's next to you, you not only get sucked into the conversation, but you look over for emphasis or to make eye contact, and that's dangerous. So we should ban passengers as well.

And do I even need to tell you the dangers and distraction that screaming children in the back seat can pose? So leave your kids at home when you drive as well.

You think I'm kidding?
A recent American Automobile Association (AAA) study found that cell phones are the cause of only 1.5 percent of the 284,000 distraction-related accidents each year. The other causes?

* Eating and drinking: 1.7 percent.

* Other occupants in the vehicle: 10.8 percent

* Adjusting radio, cassette or CD: 11.4 percent (adjusting the air conditioner or heater was an additional 2.8 percent)

For the math deficient out there, that means hamburgers are slightly more hazardous than wireless phones, radios are 7.6 times the distraction and conversing people are 7.2 times the hazard.

Most frightening of all is that 15 percent of the distraction-related accidents were caused because the driver just wasn't paying attention. That's 10 times as many accidents as were caused by cell phones, and there's not a thing we can ban to fix it. Unless you want to ban thinking and driving.

We've all had that moment when some lousy driver talking on the phone cuts us off--and invariably the jerk with the cell phone is some arrogant yuppie who doesn't even give you the "sorry shrug" or the "my bad" wave.

But as much as the cell phone becomes the focus of our holy rage, banning them in cars defies logic, rational thought and statistics.

Cell phones are new, and until a couple years ago were expensive, so to many people they still seem like frivolous prestige symbols. That feeling mixed with the standard "road rage" that accompanies all near-misses--plus a couple sensationalized stories in the news--add up to the demonization of cell phones.

The truth of the matter is we're mad at the driver who cut us off, but the anger gets focused on the object. This is what is called "displacement" and is one of the original defense mechanisms in psychology. But banning cell phones will not make a dent in solving the hazards of the road.

If we really want to ban things that are public safety and public health hazards, we should start with cigarettes, which not only account for the deaths of 250,000 smokers and 60,000 non-smokers a year, but also cause 0.9 percent of all distraction-related accidents--only slightly fewer than cell phones.

But not a single state has pending legislation to do that, while 40 states are considering laws to limit cell phone usage in cars--and three already have some law on the books.

Media hysteria
These laws are nothing more than political pandering to a sentiment that is so misguided its passions border on the hysterical. From George Jones to Niki Taylor, the media have latched onto a few high-profile stories that "prove" cell phones in cars are dangerous. But anecdotes--no matter how sensationalized--prove nothing except that one thing happened to one person.

And demonstrating that some people who are in accidents were talking on the phone at the time of collision does not in any way imply that cell phones cause the accident. You can gather statistics to find out that a third of all people in accidents were were wearing blue jeans and all of them were breathing oxygen, but it would be absurd to then say blue jeans and oxygen caused the accidents.

That's a fundamental law in science: Correlation does not imply causation. In this case, even showing that accidents involving cell phones don't imply that cell phones are causing accidents. The only thing it proves is what we already know: more people are using cell phones, so of course more of the people who are in accidents are on the phone at the time.

Science and statistics tell us much more: Cell phones contribute to a near-insignificant number of the 6.3 million reported accidents each year. Barely a blip on the statistical radar. Banning phones from cars or limiting their usage will not impact the number of accidents or fatalities.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that cell phone users shouldn't use common sense. Get a headset or speakerphone. A voice-activated phone is even better.

Don't look up a number while you're driving, and don't dial them unless you're stopped at a red light. But these things fall into the "duh" category, and (sadly) no government can legislate common sense.

Real issue: People can't drive
There's a much bigger problem here. The real problem is that with or without cell phones, most people can't drive. Cars are big dangerous things that take attention and skill to operate. And by focusing on cell phones we're skirting the real issues.

Reducing the number of accidents on the road will take choices much harder than banning cell phones, hamburgers, radios or passengers. If we as a society want to get serious, we have to stop looking at drivers' licenses as entitlements and create a serious and difficult national driver-safety program that is part of our licensing. Current driver-test staples like keeping your hands at "10 and 2" and making a three-point turn are really not enough.

All drivers should be taught real defensive driving skills and given comprehensive road tests on wet tracks with simulations of emergencies. And passing this test when you're 16 years old is not sufficient--there should be a mandatory re-licensing every seven to 10 years.

This of course would cost money, and would be a big inconvenience for anyone who has to re-take the test. But it would likely save money in the long run, in the costs of smashed cars, lost work, injuries and even death that are the consequences of our current system.

Another thing we could do is to re-examine how traffic problems are enforced. While I have the utmost respect for police, I have a hard time believing that a trooper with a radar gun picking off speeders is doing anything but generating revenues for government coffers. The most dangerous drivers aren't necessarily the ones going 67 mile per hour in a 55 zone, but are the ones weaving in and out, tailgating and forcing other drivers to swerve and slam on their brakes--and those drivers are much harder to catch and fine.

Perhaps instead of worrying about whether the driver is on the phone, we should commit funding for states to hire more troopers and cities to hire more traffic enforcement officers to try to cut down on reckless driving--regardless of whether the driver is on the phone.

But both of those ideas are hard and expensive.

Banning cell phones are much easier, and more politically palatable.

We can either start to take driving seriously and weigh these hard decisions, or we can avoid the tough answers and ban cell phones. Then when that doesn't stop car accidents, we can ban hamburgers, stereos, passengers and anything else we can think of.