Subcommittee agrees mobile phones distract, wants more data

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WASHINGTON-Wireless phone use while driving is a distraction, but should phone use while driving be banned? Not unless more data proves they are the cause of a significant number of accidents, according to a House highways subcommittee hearing held last week.

“The data is not adequate and not definitive,” said L. Robert Shelton, executive director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“I’m convinced that we need better statistical information on the scope of the problem. I think we have a growing highway safety problem whose scope is not yet well defined, and it’s a problem we can’t afford to ignore,” said Robert A. Borski (D-Pa.), ranking member of the House highways subcommittee, which held a hearing on driver distraction last week.

NHTSA said that while it is not recommending any specific federal action, it would welcome anything Congress could do to encourage states to collect more accurate data on driver distraction. A 1996 study suggested that between 20 percent and 30 percent of all car crashes are caused by driver distraction. Today, 20 states collect general data on crashes caused by distractions, but only a few of those states break down that data to the specific distraction. For this reason, it is hard to tell how much more dangerous talking on the phone is compared to eating a hamburger or changing a CD.

Reaction to the “study now, decide later” approach to the issue received mixed results from both members of the subcommittee and members of a panel of witnesses.

Members of Congress from rural western states were concerned that data collection efforts would lead to a one-size-fits-all regulation of mobile-phone use while driving.

“What we do want to do is to make sure the federal government doesn’t continually try to legislate common sense on states like Montana. So I hope that you won’t just go back to your agency and continue to try to gather data for the specific purpose of trying to come to a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Dennis R. Rehberg (R-Mont.)

Rep. John A. Thune (R-S.D.) agreed saying “cell phones come in handy in some cases just from keeping people from falling asleep.”

Patricia Pena, the mother of Morgan Lee who was killed in a well-publicized accident in 1999, urged Congress to do something now, noting that when 150 people were killed in Ford Motor Corp. sport utility vehicles with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires that Congress jumped into action. Pena also said that written materials included with her mobile phone said phone use was not safe while driving. “Clearly they are recommending you not use their product while driving,” she said.

Pena was joined by Thomas A. Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, who said the government regulates drugs until potential side effects are studied, not the other way around.

“Many will argue that the true extent of this threat to public safety cannot currently be estimated precisely and therefore action is not appropriate. Using the new drug analogy, one could argue that the action is necessary because we do not fully understand the threat to public safety,” said Dingus.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association tried to turn the nature of the hearing from the problems of cell phones to the beauty of cell phones. “The wireless phone is the greatest safety tool since the development of 911,” said CTIA President Thomas E. Wheeler.

Wheeler said CTIA has bought more than 2 billion advertisements nationwide on drive-time radio to educate the public about the proper use of mobile phones when driving. In addition, CTIA is working with the National Safety Council to develop a public-service announcement, starring Wheeler, to further get the message out.

A key to the CTIA message is to use hands-free devices. But Mark Lee Edwards, managing director of traffic safety for AAA, and Shelton both warned that using hands-free is not risk-free.

“It is the mental distraction of talking on the phone that is more of a risk. … Hands-free is not risk free,” said Shelton.

“The myth is that hands-free is risk free. We don’t have any quick fixes for this problem. As a consequence, we will be telling them to be doing the very wrong thing,” said Edwards.

Today customers wishing to use a hands-free device must purchase them as an accessory to the wireless phone, but that may change if one of a handful of pending lawsuits is successful. The lawsuits, which contend hands-free devices would protect the mobile-phone user from potentially damaging radio-frequency emissions, seek to require that mobile-phone carriers include hands-free devices as part of the original phone purchase.

Ironically, the subcommittee hearing took place in a mobile-phone-free zone specifically because they are a distraction, said Rep. Don Young (A-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“I have banned cell phones in this room. I think everyone understands the distraction. I don’t like people talking on the cell phone. … Personally, I think they are a distraction. They do a disservice to the person if your mind is not on the road,” said Young.

In an odd turn of events, the hearing was cut short when the elevator shaft of the Rayburn House Office Building caught fire, requiring an immediate evacuation of the building.

No one was hurt in the fire.

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