FELDMAN: Legislature should pass ban on handheld cell phone use

Like many of you reading this column, I’m guilty of driving while talking on a cell phone or, even worse, using other mobile applications. But like 74% of people surveyed, many of whom drive while using cell phones, I also think it should be illegal.

Heck, let’s face it. We’ve all experienced drivers who appear oblivious to what’s going on around them, are in the wrong lane, run a stop sign or traffic light, rear-end the car in front of them, change lanes without looking, or inappropriately take the right of way with a cell phone plastered to their ear. Common sense would demand that cell phone use be prohibited while driving. Studies have demonstrated that driving while talking on a cell phone is equivalent or even much worse than driving at a 0.08 blood alcohol level.

However, research demonstrates that talking to another passenger in the car is relatively safe because the passenger is another set of eyes and conversation reacts to traffic difficulties and events. Also, simply listening to the radio or similar activities does not substantially impair driving.

It’s all about eyes off the road, cognitive distraction and the inability to process everything necessary on the road. Other distractions occur behind the wheel, but cell phone use is the most common and among the most dangerous.

Studies do not support hands-free phone use as less dangerous. Intuitively, one would think that two hands on the wheel and eyes on the road would be a much safer situation, but it’s the cognitive distraction and “inattention blindness” that cause much of the increased risk of crashes.

The statistics vary among studies, but examine this sample from credible sources:

Eighty percent of motorists talk on cell phones while driving, and up to 19% admit to accessing the internet. Thirty percent of drivers send or receive texts while driving. The risk of a crash while texting is 23 times higher, accounting for 390,000 injuries yearly.

Cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes yearly. Twenty-eight percent of car accidents are caused by drivers talking or texting on cell phones.

Nearly 20% of fatal accidents are attributed to cell phone use. Fatal-crash risk is 66% higher when drivers are manipulating a cell phone.

Motorists who use cell phones for various reasons while driving have more than a fivefold increased chance of being involved in an accident. Simply talking on a cell phone increases crash risk fourfold.

A clear majority of Americans believe talking or texting are two of the most dangerous behaviors while driving.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., ban the use of handheld phones for all drivers, and 48 states and Washington, D.C., ban texting by all drivers. Indiana bans all cell phone use for drivers under 18 years old and bans texting for all drivers.

A complete cell phone ban while driving is not politically possible. It would infuriate voters and incense auto manufacturers. Although hands-free devices aren’t safe, banning at least handheld phones is prudent and is associated with a 10% lower non-alcohol-related driver fatality rate. Drivers too often look but just don’t see while using cell phones, their automobiles turned into lethal weapons.

Drivers should be fully engaged, attentive and focused. Thanks to Gov. Eric Holcomb for leading the way in prohibiting handheld cell phone use while driving.

It’s long overdue.•

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Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

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