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Published: Friday, 7/16/2004

A case for hands-free

IT S AN all-too-common fright for any motorist: The driver of the car

just ahead is merging onto the expressway at 60 miles per hour with a cell phone clamped to one ear and a cup of coffee in his other hand.How s he steering? Does he see that big truck coming up on the left?

Distracted drivers like those are a serious highway hazard, according

to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency

estimates that one quarter of all accidents are caused by

distractions of some sort, whether it s talking on cell phones,

eating, putting on makeup, fiddling with the stereo, or arguing with

the kids.

No one, least of all today s independent-minded Baby Boomers, wants to lose any more personal freedom, but the NHTSA statistics bolster the case for requiring that all cell phones be set up for hands-free operation.

This is not a radical solution, given that most cell phones can be

easily modified for hands-free use with simple equipment costing

anywhere from $10 on up. And, because techno-savvy cell users

typically change phones often, hands-free capability could be built

into all new units and soon almost everyone would have it.

A few states and localities the states of New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia already bar the use of handheld cell

phones in motor vehicles, on pain of fines up to $250. The state of

Washington does, too, but first-time violators can get the $100 fine

waived if they buy a hands-free phone within 30 days.

In Washington, D.C., motorists also are prohibited from using pagers, calculators, and electronic games behind the wheel. Members of Congress and lobbyists, beware.

Some groups maintain that cell phones are no more dangerous a

distraction than other in-car activities, including talking with

passengers. AAA, for example, opposes a ban on use of handheld

phones, and a spokesman told USA Today that hands-free equipment like earpieces might encourage more talk and thus the chance for even more accidents.

Nonetheless, cell phones constitute a substantial safety risk,

because by definition, hand-held means only one hand is on the wheel and the driver is distracted. Since they also are a major convenience and time-saver for today s extraordinarily productive workers, no one wants to see them banned from cars in the aftermath of some horrendous traffic crash.

That s why the Ohio General Assembly should revive a bill that s been languishing in Columbus. Sponsored by Rep. Catherine Barrett, of Cincinnati, it would impose a $100 fine for any motorist involved in a crash while holding a cell phone.

Such legislation won t stop drivers from combing their hair, or

screaming at the kids in the back seat, or eating a breakfast burrito

on the way to work, but it would spur more car callers to go

hands-free when they talk on the phone.



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