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Cell Phones: Unsafe at Any Speed

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DANIEL HULSHIZER/AP

Motorists are warned about an ordinance against hand-held cellular phone usage

Not long ago, I learned the true, deadly nature of cell phones. I was driving down a highway in North Carolina, marveling at the novelty of my situation (New Yorkers, contrary to what you might have heard, don't spend much time in the driver's seat). It was a glorious spring day, and the air streaming through my open window was scented with tobacco. Perfect driving conditions.

Then I saw the car. Its hulking frame, painted the most recent shade in SUV-chic, hovered on my right side for a moment before inching past me. Then, without warning, it drifted left, towards me, and for the first time in my life, my unfortunate and paranoid tendency to drive with one hand hovering over the car horn actually came in handy. I let loose with a nice, long warning. The wayward car drifted away from me, back into its lane. Then, just as suddenly, it eased over to its right, only to be greeted with a similar cacophony from cars in that lane.

The driver of that car, I thought, is obviously incredibly drunk. So drunk, in fact, that heís not even aware heís driving. Heís just meandering down the highway trying his darnedest to stay on the gray strip that vaguely resembles the road. It was at this moment, when I was trying to decide whether to pull over and let the guy pass or pull over and call the police, that the car in question swerved back into view. I noticed the driver was talking animatedly, and as I carefully passed him, I could see he was holding a cell phone to his ear.

I didnít call the police, although in retrospect I wish I had. That spectacular imbecile may have gone on to kill or maim — and while I am not sure the North Carolina highway patrol would have been particularly sympathetic to my self-righteous outrage, I like to think a carefully-considered complaint might have made a difference.

Just such complaints, after all, combined with a coldhearted cost-benefit analysis, have prompted many states to take a hard line approach to mobile phone usage. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 42 states have introduced laws barring drivers from using hand-held cell phones. Most lawmakers see the ban as a win-win proposition — while irrefutable supporting data are still in the pipeline, preliminary evidence suggests that drivers are more reckless when theyíre on the phone. And if simply keeping people off their cell phones while they drive (or just putting the darn thing on a dashboard console), thus leaving the driver with two free hands, can cut down on the expense, human cost and inconvenience of traffic accidents, most legislators figure theyíve got nothing to lose.

I, for one, will take my hands off the wheel just long enough to applaud this turn of events. If the federal government is too wimpy to enforce safety measures, letís turn to our state lawmakers. Itís about time for action. Itís been four years since the New England Journal of Medicine ran its infamous statistic: Using cell phones increases driversí risk of accidents fourfold — or about the same amount as drinking and driving. And while it might be reasonable to assume this kind of dire warning would be enough to keep driversí eyes on the road and off their little dial pad, it apparently hasnít done a darn bit of good. More drivers than ever are yakking away as they negotiate sharp turns and slippery roads — and the rest of us cringe and scramble to stay out of their swerving trajectories.

I suppose I should be grateful that Americaís cell phone craze hasnít spun completely out of control. In Australia, ornithologists have discovered that the countryís so-called "mimic birds" are starting to use cell phone noises in place of their traditional mating calls. Australiaís cell phones are so pervasive, scientists fear, even birds living in rural areas are familiar with the tone. Youíve got to give the birds some credit. What better way to grab a mateís undivided attention? Our feathered friends have obviously taken note of the phenomenon known as "Ooh-hang-on-while-I-get-that-cell-phone-call" — that blind and manic need to drop everything and answer a call — that sadly afflicts so many humans, including heart surgeons, air-traffic controllers and, apparently, even my wandering friend in North Carolina. Letís just hope those poor birds arenít suddenly inspired to migrate halfway around the world, or we could have whole roads full of cars swerving dangerously in hopes of answering that pesky cell phone ringing in the branches of a tree.

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