OAKLAND — Driving under the influence of cell phones is a growing highway epidemic, according to Frances Bents, the lead investigator for a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study. While incidents of car accidents caused by driver inattention due to cell phone use are largely unreported, there is enough evidence, she says, to warrant state legislation to curtail such use.
Bents was in Oakland on Thursday to participate in a fact finding panel on cell phone use by motorists, convened by Assembly member Audie Bock, Independent-Piedmont, in downtown Oakland. The fact finding panel, Bock said, would lead “to the appropriate legislative response,” though no time table for such legislation was given.
Among the eight panel members were Bents, Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, and Mardy Burns. Burns is the mother of Sara Anne Burns, killed in a car crash when a driver swerved into her lane as he reached for his cell phone, which had fallen to the floor.
While most European nations, Brazil and Australia have laws against going cellular on the highway, no states ban cellular phone use while driving. A handful, however, are researching the involvement of the phones in accidents.
The need for legislation is acute, Bent said. It should mandate police documentation of whether the driver was “under the influence” of a cell phone, and include the ability of the courts to subpoena phone records to determine guilt.
Matt Sundeen, who tracks highway safety legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the panel that 37 states have tried to pass cell phone laws since 1995.
Burns agreed with the need for legislation. Placing a photo of her daughter on the podium, she told the panel, “The boy who killed my daughter didn’t even get a ticket,” she said. “It was a senseless and totally preventable crash.”
Others argued that there is no need for such regulations.
“We need better education, not more legislation,” said Robert Latham, Public Affairs Director of the Independent Institute in Oakland. “Already every time I turn on my phone, there is a message saying, “Safety, your most important call.” People don’t need laws, they just need to be aware of their responsibilities.”
Strong lobbying against cellular phone restrictions by the telecommunications industry has also helped keep legislation in check, panelists said. Representatives from the industry were invited to the panel but did not attend.
With 100 million cellular phones already in use across the nation, and an expected doubling over the next five years, advocates of such legislation fear that incidents of driver inattention will also double. Cell phone use in vehicles distracts the driver from road conditions, they say.
“In 1995, the average cellular phone call lasted 2.5 minutes, which means that people travel an average of three miles during an average phone call. With motorists driving at higher speeds, car sales hitting an all time high, and cell phone use also at an all-time high, instances of driver inattention is also increasing. With the lessening of phone rates, I imagine that those phone calls are more frequent and last longer than in 1995 as well,” Bents said.
“How many times have you almost been in an accident with a blissfully unaware driver lost in a phone conversation?” she asked.
In those moments of driver inattention, the likelihood of an accident is quadrupled, she said, citing a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine.
Defining driver inattention as a “withdrawal from situation awareness,” Bents identified four ways that cell phone use distracts drivers from the road, but identified “cognitive withdrawal” as the chief cause of most cell phone accidents.
“People feel compelled to answer their phones, which cuts them off from the process of getting from point A to point B. Also people get startled by their phone ringing and this makes them lose focus,” she said.
Dean supported state, or even national, legislation on cell-phone safety.
“We wanted to pass an ordinance in Berkeley,” she said, “but realized that it would make things too confusing for people crossing to and from Oakland, for instance. That’s when we realized that this was not just a city or regional issue, but a state or federal issue.”
She mentioned that Berkeley unanimously passed a recommendation to Sacramento legislators to require the California Highway Patrol to include in their accident reports information about cellular phone use, as well as to require the Department of Motor Vehicles to include such data in their annual reports.
“It’s not a case of collecting years and years of data” explained Dean. “It’s a request to collect a year’s worth of data to create a basis for future legislation to make its judgments on,” she told the Daily Planet.
How such legislation would be enforced and how such data would be collected, however, raised other questions.
“What are the practical means by which officers can enforce any restrictions on cell phone use while driving?” asked Bock. “What will be the costs if agencies are ever asked to subpoena and research cell phone records to determine if a cell phone was in use at the time of an automobile accident? Would enforcement of new regulations or prohibitions against cell phone use while driving distract law enforcement from other duties we entrust to them?”
Bock also mentioned the new business culture of work being conducted while people are in their vehicles.
“Traffic congestion and long commutes have made time in a vehicle part of the business day,” said Bock.
The auto and communication industries stand to gain quite a bit from continued use of cell phones in cars, Bents added. Already lines of in-vehicle communication devices are flooding the market.
Drivers will be able to go on-line in their cars, receiving e-mail, downloading information, receiving faxes, even watching movies if they choose.
“It allows the auto industry to generate continuous cash flow, which they hadn’t been able to do once they sold a car. People would pay a monthly fee to keep these in-vehicle services. It’s a cash cow for the auto industry,” Bents said.
“All of this is in motion, and the stakes are very high,” said Bents, “but we’re not asking the real question of whether this in-vehicle communication should be happening or not. Are we going to place the needs of commerce ahead of personal safety?”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.