The Rant 

In the name of all that's holy, will some elected

official entrusted with the public's safety — man or woman,Republican or Democrat, local, state, or federal — please find the conscience or the 'nads to stand up to the telecom industry and propose legislation banning cell-phone use while driving? Is this a difficult call to make? Nothing is more enraging than to be held up in traffic by some grinning, oblivious, self-absorbed fool, yammering into a cell phone with one hand on the wheel and the other up to an ear, while angered drivers maneuver to pass on the left and right. Don't they still teach driver's ed in school? And if so, whatever happened to "both hands on the wheel"? At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I believe that cell-phone use is a prime contributor to the breakdown of civility in society, but using the dastardly devices while driving a car is simply stupid, and deadly.

Now we discover that, according to The New York Times, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration withheld hundreds of pages of research confirming the deadly results of cell-phone use in cars "because of concerns about angering Congress." The research, begun in 2003, estimated that cell-phone use by drivers caused 240,000 accidents and nearly 1,000 fatalities in the previous year, and we would never have heard about it had not the Center for Auto Safety petitioned for the findings under the Freedom of Information Act. Clarence Ditlow, the center's director, said, "We're looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up." Why am I not surprised that the Bush-era Transportation Department, under Secretary Norman Mineta, decided to quash the report as "inconclusive"? The Bush team caved in to every other corporate interest with political donations in hand, why not the cell-phone industry too? Ditlow added, "No public health and safety agency should allow its research to be suppressed for political reasons." Can I get a witness?

There are currently 14 states that ban texting while driving (which is like outlawing mixing cocktails behind the wheel) but only six that forbid yakking on the phone. The movement to ban texting grew after the April 29, 2009, incident involving a bus driver in San Antonio who was captured on film while he texted his way directly into the rear of several vehicles stopped at a red light. Tennessee has a texting ban, but although we have crash statistics, there is currently no effort to ban hand-held devices while driving. There is some irony in the fact that, as a nation, we mourn the brave soldiers, now over 5,000 in number, who have sacrificed their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the past eight years, yet we barely swallow hard over the nearly 40,000 traffic fatalities on our nation's roads annually. A University of Utah study comparing 40 volunteer drivers of a "virtual car" discovered that drunk drivers did better than cell-phone users and that chatting on the cell was the equivalent of registering a .08 on the breathalyzer.

I understand that there now exists a "culture of the cell phone" that will be difficult to alter. I carry a cell phone, but I don't answer it if I'm driving, and if I need to make a call, I pull in somewhere and stop. It's not that I'm not smart enough to multi-task, it's that I realize that driving today's roads requires complete attention, if only to protect yourself from some Suburban Assault Vehicle drifting into your lane because the driver is on the phone. Unless you're a doctor or a fireman, there is no phone message so urgent that it can't wait a few minutes to be answered safely.

In Europe, cell-phone use is already banned while driving, so why does it always take this country so long to enact the obvious? Oh, I forgot, we disdain European culture. The Old Country takes the matter so seriously that there is a kit for sale that includes a paint-ball gun for drivers to mark the cars of violators when the police aren't around. Of course, anyone shooting another car with a paint-ball gun around here would have their heads blown off with a real gun. The effete Europeans don't allow guns in cars either, but at least in this country, we're able to report a real shooting by using the cell phone that's already in our hands.

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