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Published: Tuesday, 7/22/2008

California calling

BY VIRTUE of its size, inventiveness, and sheer energy, California is a great booster of trends and ideas. It is also a state where the idea of freedom is mixed up with the automobile and the lure of the open road.

Yet for all its free-and-easy lifestyle, California is emerging as a tough proponent of traffic safety laws, particularly concerning the use of cell phones, that ubiquitous modern appendage of the chronically distracted. Ohio could learn something here.

As reported by the New York Times, California has since July 1 required that all drivers use a headset if using a cell phone - the fifth state to do this. However, under a separate law, drivers under the age of 18 can't use any sort of mobile phone, a law it shares with 13 other states.

Enough evidence has emerged from studies that show using a cell phone while driving is extremely dangerous, a finding that confirms people's everyday experience on the roads. One oft-cited study found that a driver talking on the phone is four times as likely to have an accident, a rate comparable with drinking while driving. Nor does it seem to matter whether the cell phone used is hands-free or hands-held. Both are equal-opportunity agents of distraction.

Those facts argue that California should treat all its drivers as if they were under 18 and ban the use of all cell phones in vehicles. But at least the state has made a start to deal with the problem and has a law that should instill caution in its younger drivers.

As California goes, so often goes later the rest of the nation. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It inhibits nobody's freedom to insist that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and not talk their way into needless accidents.

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