If you dial, don't drive 

But, as Kim Hendren has learned, trying to force drivers to give up cell phone use is a tough battle.

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State Sen. Kim Hendren has made a legislative career out of trying to make Arkansas’s roads safer. He’s proposed bills to require motorcyclists to wear helmets and drivers hauling loads of gravel to cover them with tarps.

And session after session, he’s tried to get his fellow lawmakers to ban motorists from talking on hand-held cell phones — a step state legislatures around the country have considered. And session after session, including the one just finished, he’s failed.

“There’s thinking out across the country, in this state and in the legislature that anything we do to restrict a person’s freedom and rights is an undue imposition on them,” said Hendren, a Republican from Gravette. “In that line of thinking, I can get on a highway and drive any speed in any lane in any direction. That’s a prescription for tragedy for all of us.”

The number of cell phone users has gone from 4.3 million in 1990 to 231 million today. A study released in January by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company found that about three-quarters of cell phone users admit to talking while they drive, and — even more alarming — 19 percent say they send text messages.

Research leaves no doubt that talking on a cell phone increases a driver’s chances of being in an accident. That’s led to an explosion over the last few years of state laws restricting cell phone use on the road. But whether legislation is the answer — whether all those laws are fair, wise or even effective — hasn’t yet been settled. The key to reducing cell-phone use on the road may instead come from the business world: Insurance companies wanting to cut down on claims, and corporations wanting to protect themselves from lawsuits against cell-phone-using employees who cause wrecks while on the job.

First, some numbers.

There aren’t any from Arkansas, because law enforcement agencies just started tracking cell phone involvement in accidents this year, said Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration asked all states to start collecting that information, he said.

But even when numbers do become available from those reports, there’s a good chance they’ll be on the low side. Noting cell phone use “would be dependent on the driver being forthcoming with that information or if the law enforcement officer witnessed the use of the equipment before the crash,” Sadler said.

Elsewhere, though, study after study has shown that cell phone use and other “distracted driving” behaviors do increase a driver’s chances of being in a wreck.

The problem with laws that simply outlaw hand-held cell phones while driving — and with relying on new technology like embedding hands-free wireless equipment in new cars — is that those same studies show it’s the conversation, not the act of holding a phone, that’s the real issue. There’s no difference in accident rates for drivers using hand-held versus hands-free cell phones: Both are about four times more likely to be involved in a wreck than drivers who aren’t using a cell phone.

“When you start talking on a phone, you just don’t scan the visual environment like you usually would,” said David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who has done extensive research on cell phones and driving. “It’s called ‘inattention blindness’ — people look, but they just don’t see what they’re looking at. Brain activity associated with traffic events is suppressed when people talk on a cell phone.”


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