By DAN CARNEY
It's time to admit that hands-free is not a solution. It's time to ban phone driving.
Phone driving is the drunken driving of the new millennium. Seemingly everyone does it, and all of them seem to believe they're skilled in a way that prevents their powers of perception from being clouded by the fog of isolation that envelops drivers who talk on the phone.
Everyone who isn't on the phone while driving sees evidence of it every day, as drivers weave and stutter drunkenly through traffic while negotiating peace in the Middle East over the phone, or their kid's allowance, or some other question that, while too important to wait, doesn't merit pulling over and parking for a few minutes to do.
Virginia is moving in the right direction with a bill to prohibit phone use by drivers younger than 18. But adults are affected in much the same way: Talking on a cell phone while driving makes them as likely to be involved in a crash as if they were drunk.
"You may need to save your calls until you reach your destination, or at least pull into a safe place such as a parking lot to make your call," Steve Largent, president of the Cellular Telecommunications & amp; Internet Association, told cell phone users in a Memorial Day weekend alert. Top item on the CTIA's checklist? "Keep the call short."
And that's from the cell phone industry's lobbyists.
Some people mistakenly believe only handheld phones pose a threat. We've all seen the drivers who study the screen and dial numbers when they should be looking at the road. But the real hazard is mental, not physical. Drivers are expending too much brainpower conversing and not enough watching the road.
Exxon Mobil prohibits employees from talking on the phone while driving company cars. Its researchers found that the braking reaction time of phone drivers is three times longer than that of drunken drivers, that phone drivers are as likely to rear-end the car ahead as drunks and that they're unable to maintain position in their lane. As with other studies, Exxon Mobil found that use of a hands-free phone made no difference.
The University of Utah says that young phone drivers have the reaction times of senior citizens and are blind to events around them. "Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cell phone, you are not as likely to see it," Utah researcher David Strayer observed.
University of Rhode Island researchers found that phone drivers have tunnel vision that excludes everything else. The University of North Carolina says they are twice as likely to rear-end the car ahead as drivers not using phones.
The best that defenders of phone driving can manage is to point out that phones can be used to call for assistance or to report other motorists in distress. But such calls can be made just as effectively by passengers in the car or from a stopped car.
No complaints about the quality of driving and no highway safety initiatives can be taken seriously as long as it is legal for drivers to knowingly handicap themselves as severely as this research indicates.
Drivers of all ages should be required by law to hang up and drive.
X Carney is an automotive writer