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Outside Editorial: Hang up and drive

Posted: December 28, 2011 - 12:00am

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

The National Transportation Safety Board wants all 50 states to ban cellphone use by drivers. No texting, no tweeting, no talking — not even on a hands-free phone.

It’s a standard that goes beyond anything on the books in any state.

The board has no authority to impose it. The data on accidents involving cellphones is inconclusive, the government is not our nanny, and eating a chili dog while driving is dangerous, too.

A nationwide ban will not happen.

That doesn’t mean the NTSB isn’t onto something. If you’re not frightened by what’s going on around you during your daily commute, you’re not paying attention. Drivers are texting while flying down the expressways, sending emails in stop-and-go traffic, carrying on animated conversations while changing lanes with one hand on the phone and the other holding a Starbucks.

All of that is already illegal in Chicago and beyond. Have you noticed fewer people doing it? Neither have we.

A second agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says distracted driving was a factor in more than 3,000 fatal accidents in 2010.

It doesn’t say how many involved texting, how many involved talking on the phone or how many involved reaching behind the seat to retrieve the toddler’s fallen pacifier.

But one of those accidents provided the NTSB with a horrific anecdote to support last week’s call for a comprehensive ban.

A 19-year-old driver sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before his pickup truck plowed into a tractor trailer near Gray Summit, Mo. The chain-reaction collision also involved two school buses. The teen driver and a student on one of the buses died, and 38 others were injured.

But a nationwide ban wouldn’t have prevented that tragedy. Missouri already prohibits drivers under 21 from texting while driving. Thirty-five states prohibit texting by all drivers; 30 ban cellphone use by novice drivers; and 10 have outlawed the use of even hands-free phones. Hundreds of local governments have their own laws covering behind-the-wheel cellphone use. And we would argue that all of those prohibitions (and a lot more) are covered under broader distracted driving laws in force in most states, including Illinois. (Think about that, you in the gray car, with the eye makeup implements in both hands, gazing at yourself in the rearview mirror, while drifting lane to lane on Columbus Drive, in Grant Park.)

Still, a traffic safety commission survey found that one in 10 drivers — and half of those ages 21 to 24 — said they’d texted or emailed while behind the wheel. At any given moment, 1 in 100 drivers is texting, tweeting, emailing or web-surfing, a rate that’s up 50 percent over the previous year. Most of them said they don’t think it’s dangerous.

While states have been busy passing laws to limit distractions, Americans have been acquiring all sorts of new gadgets that promote multitasking in the car. GPS systems; MP3 players; smartphones that enable users to play games, pay bills, order dinner or watch a movie while barreling down the Eisenhower. But the distractions aren’t all high-tech. The worst local example we can think of involved a driver who struck and killed a motorcyclist while painting her nails.

Distracted drivers are a menace, and they’re not getting the message. But we don’t need a broader law; we need more enforcement of laws already on the books.

What if police pounced on behind-the-wheel texting with the same zeal applied to parking meter violations? What if those hated red-light cameras could bust you for talking on your handheld phone? If the risk of killing yourself or others isn’t deterrent enough, maybe a ticket or three will get your attention.

It’s time we all started taking these dangers seriously. Keep your hands (thumbs and all) on the wheel.

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