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Published: Wednesday, 3/30/2005

Driving while distracted

THE death of little Dameatrius McCreary has brought home in a very local and personal way a growing national debate about Americans' near manic dependence on their cell phones.

Stepping off his school bus to cross busy Starr Avenue, as he had done so many times before, the 5-year-old kindergartner at Coy Elementary School was struck by the car of a woman who later acknowledged she didn't stop for the bus' flashing red lights and extended stop sign because she was distracted by her cell phone. The boy died of his injuries, and the driver of the car has been charged with aggravated vehicular homicide.

The easy and initial reaction - and certainly the appropriate one - is to roundly condemn Angelique M. Dipman, a 27-year-old mother from the Genoa area with two children of her own.

Though the courts will have to sort it all out, at least two witnesses at the scene say Ms. Dipman was already on her cell phone when her vehicle struck the boy. She says she was not and was merely distracted by its ringing.

Regardless, Oregon Police Chief Tom Gulch says she was on her cell phone talking to her attorney when officers approached, conduct which hardly endears her to the public.

It also doesn't ease Ms. Dipman's predicament that the accident seems to be only the latest manifestation of a pattern of bad driving. Though she was not believed to be speeding at the time of the accident, she has been cited at least four times in the last five years for driving too fast. On each occasion, she was driving at least 15 mph over the posted speed limit - once for flying along at 84 mph in a 55-mph zone. That's a significant violation.

Other citations include failure to wear a seat belt, failure to place a child in a proper restraint, and failure to produce a driver's license.

Inasmuch as it is not just cell phones that are evidently a problem for her but the laws of the state of Ohio as well, this is a woman who has no business behind the wheel of a motor vehicle at all. If she is ultimately convicted, she deserves significant jail time - the law allows up to five years and a $10,000 fine.

At the same time, this terrible tragedy could produce a glimmer of good if the Ohio General Assembly is finally motivated to put Ohio in the company of New York and New Jersey and ban the use of hand-held cell phones in vehicles.

Cell phones, of course, have become as ubiquitous in American life as, well, cars. And it's certainly true that motorists already inflict multiple distractions upon themselves behind the wheel. Women apply makeup. Men shave. Teenagers fumble to replace one CD with another. Parents fuss with the kids in the backseat, or with each other in the front. Drivers eating on the run balance a cheeseburger and fries on their laps.

That's human behavior, and it's extremely dangerous. But a hand-held cell phone is especially risky because it removes one hand from the wheel for an extended period.

We recognize that busy legislators are themselves among the offenders, which could explain the reluctance of many states to ban hand-held phones in vehicles. But no phone conversation is more important than the life of Dameatrius McCreary or anyone else.



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