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DWY - Driving While Yakking

02/28/02 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna

One of the best arguments for needing more wireless towers is that it will improve our response to emergencies. I think that's pretty ironic because as more people are able to use their cell phones while driving, more people are likely to need emergency services.

Only eight states regulate motorists who use cell phones, and Vermont is NOT one of them.

Now, we can't be statistically certain...yet...of just how dangerous cell phone use by motorists actually is. Most states, including ours, don't collect data on their dangers. And, unlike drunk driving, it's difficult for police to tell if a driver was on the phone during an accident.

Cell phone companies argue that there's not enough empirical data to warrant regulation.

I find this argument misleading, if not insulting. Tobacco companies too once said wait for the science.

We don't need to wait. For every one study that the cell phone industry touts as being (quote) "inconclusive," there are two that show a significant correlation between driver cell phone use and vehicular accidents. This is not rocket science. Most of us can recount a near death experience with a cell phone distracted driver, and the fatalities from cell phone related accidents are piling up as the evidence comes in.

And I think that it is fair to consider that as much as 60% of cell phone usage takes place from behind the wheel. The bottom line: Regulation could cut into profits.

True, talking on a cell phone is probably no more distracting than eating drive-through food, or tuning out your least favorite radio commentator, and there is always legitimate concern about too much government regulation.

But the sheer number of people who talk on their cell phones while driving - and the length of time that they are on the phone - at the very least warrants debate over whether regulating their use would, on balance, be appropriate to protect the public safety.

And because there is no right to drive, the state can regulate cell phone use just as it can require people to wear seatbelts.

Now, talk free or die libertarians correctly point out that there's is no seatbelt law in New Hampshire, and their roads are just as safe as ours. Evidence that we need more public education, not government regulation, they say.

But New Hampshire is a free rider. It benefits from the fact that 49 other states require seat belts.

For better or worse, it was the change in the laws nationwide that prompted a change in seatbelt behavior, including that of the good people of the granite state.

If every state said, "Hang up - it's the law" most of us would think twice before driving and dialing, even if the penalty were simply a fine. Sometimes you do need a law, if only to drive the point home, so to speak.

Polls show most Americans support regulating motorist cell phone use, but in states like New York, which bans the use of hand held phones, laws were passed only after cell-phone related accidents made the headlines.

Sadly, in Vermont, with all these new towers going up, that may only be a matter of time.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

--Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.


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