A new national study says the percentage of motorists who talk on cell phones while driving has jumped only slightly since last year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the figure went up from 8 percent to 10 percent. That's hard to believe. Look around in traffic. It seems that everybody behind the wheel is on the phone - far more than one in 10 anyway.
It's annoying when people use cell phones for casual talk in stores, theaters, and wherever else others are within easy earshot. But it's a safety issue when motorists act as though the driver's seat is their den, where they chat away without due regard for anyone else. We've all seen motorists on cell phones hit the brakes hard for a red light or swerve when they drift into another lane.
NHTSA reported that 6 percent of drivers hold phones to their ears. That, too, seems low, given what our eyes tell us on the road. One NHTSA conclusion we can agree with: Women and young people seem to be the most common offenders.
Most drivers have used hand-held cell phones to order dinner or call home. But dialing and answering seriously distracts drivers. NHTSA only wants motorists to use cell phones in an emergency. That won't happen until it becomes illegal to use the devices otherwise. The British Medical Journal published a study in July that said drivers on cell phones were four times as likely to become involved in serious accidents.
Residents here know about that. Earlier this year, Dameatrius McCreary, 5, was killed after he got off a school bus when a woman distracted by her cell phone drove past the bus, even though it had its warning lights flashing.
It's illegal in some states to use hand-held cell phones, including Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Chicago and Santa Fe, N.M., require hands-free devices for use in motor vehicles.
However, several states forbid local governments from restricting cell phone use in cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State lawmakers claim they don't have enough evidence to make using cell phones in cars illegal, unlike when they toughened the laws regarding drunken driving and made seat belt use mandatory.
Of course, legislators may be reluctant regulators because they themselves are often primary offenders. But cell phones have become pervasive in our lives and they should not be allowed to compromise public safety.