Those Annoying Cellular-Using Drivers

Those Annoying Cellular-Using Drivers

Paul Coe Clark III


DATA PACKET: Services; Vol. 2, No. 34

An e-mail newsletter of The Net Economy


I intended this newsletter to be my annual early-session survey

of state bills to regulate cell-phone use while driving. After

a look at the field, however, I decided to forego handicapping

the bills, or even trying to catalog them. There are just too


West Coast Editor Louis Trager has also complained about

driving while in-talk-sicated:

In any case, the good folks at the National Council of State

Legislatures have done that work for me this year. And the

numbers are pretty impressive.

NCSL home page:

So far this session, state legislators have filed about 100 such

bills, most of which would prohibit or limit the use of wireless

phones will driving, in 38 states. That’s up from 27 states

last year and 15 in 1999. You see the trend.

The NCSL cell-phone and highway safety page:

I’ve been covering the wireless-while-driving bills since they

began appearing. I’m amazed, given the number of them, and the

genuine hostility toward cell-phone-toting drivers, that no

state has yet banned wireless use while driving. Three states —

California, Florida and Massachusetts — have imposed some

restrictions on using wireless phones while driving, but all

three stopped short of a total ban.

California requires car-rental companies to give renters

instructions on how to use cell phones safely while driving (“Do

not use this cell phone underwater while driving,” perhaps. Or,

“Do not ingest this handset.”) Florida requires cell phones

that allow drivers to hear out of at least one ear — just as

most states forbid the use of headphones for listening to music

while driving. My favorite of the three is Massachusetts, which

allows cell-phone use as long as it does not interfere with

driving, and drivers keep at least one hand on the wheel. I

suspect it was already illegal to drive with no hands — in

Massachusetts, anyway, where most things are illegal.

The pressure to outlaw cellular use while driving will continue

to build as long as legislators consider the practice

hazardous, and particularly as long as voters find handset-

gabbing drivers an irritant, which they do. The hazard is real,

although it can be overstated. NCSL listed three deaths that

have been attributed to cell-phone use; I know of another, in

England. Out of hundreds of thousands of auto deaths worldwide,

that’s a tiny percentage. The irritation, although harder to

quantify, is more pervasive.

Get the facts. Here’s a great site for traffic-fatality

statistics, both detailed and in summary:

Face it, there is something jarring and annoying about public

cell-phone use — unless we’re the ones talking. It’s a classic

case of what social scientists call a third-person effect:

Cellular use by others is intrusive, rude and dangerous; by

ourselves, it’s justified, unobtrusive and safe. Most people I

talk to think, in the abstract, that talking on a phone while

driving is dangerous. I think most of them, however, do it —

an impression NCSL backs up. Of the 90 million wireless

subscribers in the United States, 85 percent use their phones

while driving, the association estimates.

Many of the wired seem to want wireless use banned or limited

not only as a safety risk while driving, but as a general

annoyance at other times. I can sympathize. I’m writing this

on an Amtrak Metroliner between Washington and New

York, and wireless phones have become a genuine nuisance on

trains. Metroliners used to be relaxing places, where you could

catch a nap between cities. No longer. It’s a sure bet that,

as soon as you start falling asleep, a wireless phone will ring,

or play “La Cucaracha,” followed by a phone conversation that

acts like fingernails on a blackboard. I can’t think why a

cellular conversation should be more intrusive than a normal

one, but it is. To make yourself understood over wireless, you

have to pitch your voice just louder enough than normal talk to

jangle the nerves of everyone within earshot.

So I glare at cell phone users on trains — but just made a

brief call myself to check on a hotel reservation. Hey, I never

claimed to be consistent. Most people aren’t either, which is

why annoying and sometimes dangerous cellular use is only going

to escalate, along with calls to regulate it.

If annoyance isn’t bad enough, cell-phone towers are being

blamed for killing migrating birds:

The Canadians are considering a proactive policy, with

cell-phone jamming:

I have my doubts about the anti-cellular bills, however. I like

my laws to be enforceable, and evenly enforceable, which I doubt

many of them are. How do you spot drivers using phones? If

they’re using handsets, it’s fairly easy, but many cars now have

dashboard or console-mounted phones. Do we have one enforcement

standard for AT&T Wireless users driving Ford Contours, and

another for OnStar users driving Cadillacs? One for

convertible drivers and one for owners of SUVs with tinted


Other provisions are even harder to enforce. The one-hand rule

is presumably designed to prevent callers from dialing with

both hands while holding the steering wheel with their knees.

Even for that small percentage of drivers that hasn’t figured

out how do dial one handed, however, such a rule is hard to

enforce. Dialing usually takes only a few seconds, making it

unlikely to be spotted by police. Other bills would limit

calls to one minute or some similar duration. How is a police

officer supposed to time drivers’ calls?

Even unenforceable laws, of course, can do some good — in this

case by reminding drivers of the dangers of cellular use while

driving. Seat-belt laws are a similar case. Given those 90

million wireless users (and penetration is increasing daily),

however, the cellular-while driving laws are likely to further

erode the presumption of innocence of drivers under the law.

I’ve been a crime reporter, and I can tell you police officers

love seat-belt laws. Not so much because they add to safety

(although they do), but because they give officers a rationale

to pull over drivers they suspect, but who they have no probable

cause, under the law, to believe have committed a crime. I

suspect the cellular bills will serve a similar purpose, as well

as adding causes for civil and criminal action against drivers

who have caused accidents while using cell phones.

A handy guide if you are stopped by the police:

It’s a tough issue. The cell-phone laws are only one symptom of

the developing backlash against wireless users. As a citizen, I

think people shouldn’t use cell phones while driving, or scream

into them on trains. But I suspect laws mandating such

limitations will only erode liberties and provoke contempt for

the law.

Cell phones may do more than annoy and distract drivers.

They may cause cancer:

LANGUAGE PUZZLER OF THE WEEK. Does anyone out there read

Turkish? We’ve discovered the following article that references

The Net Economy. It looks interesting, but our Turkish is a

little rusty — apparently rustier than the English of the

Turkish writer, who must be reading our publication.

Click below to see the Turkish article:

I never cease to be amazed at how information propagates across

the Web. Although TNE is primarily targeted at U.S. readers,

sites in Germany, Turkey and elsewhere are now linked to us. A

century ago, it would have taken months to mail a magazine to


Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in The Net Economy.