Turn Car On; Turn Phone Off

 

 
Editorial
 
 
Published: December 12, 2009
 
Like drivers chattering on their mobile phones, the cellphone industry was for years too distracted — by rising profits — to see the dangers ahead. As Matt Richtel wrote in The Times last week, the mobile phone industry promoted the glamour and convenience of “car phones” for years while failing to heed warnings that driving and phoning can be a deadly mix.
 
One ad from 1984 shows a bigwig driver on the phone and tellingly asks, “Can your secretary take dictation at 55 m.p.h.?”
 
A great measure of responsibility for safety lies with drivers. But now, as study after study shows the hazards of talking on the phone, or especially texting, while driving, it is time to ask why the wireless phone industry fought controls for so long on a product that could be used so dangerously.
 
It brings to mind that row of tobacco company executives who swore to a Congressional subcommittee 15 years ago that their products were not addictive. Or the car companies that went on making hefty S.U.V.’s that had a record of rolling over.
 
The reasons the cellphone industry representatives have given to block bans on phone use while driving sound straight out of the “Thank You for Smoking” playbook. One refrain was that the evidence was not settled, an assertion that continued as the industry itself was beginning to warn drivers about driving while phoning.
 
In California, the mobile industry fought off bans on talking while driving for years, at one point arguing that they were looking out for consumers. Consumers want to use their cellphones, that is true, but most who drive would also prefer to make it to their destinations. And distracted drivers put everyone else on the road at risk.
 
Even though the police are too seldom required to determine whether cellphone use was involved in an accident, the data about texting or phoning while driving is alarming. Harvard researchers estimated that drivers on cellphones cause about 2,600 fatal crashes a year and 570,000 accidents. Hands-free devices do not eliminate that risk. Other studies show that someone legally drunk could outperform a person texting behind the wheel.
 
Congress has slowly begun to focus on this issue and proposals for bans are now circulating in both houses, some with support of the cellphone industry. None of them are terribly high on Washington’s agenda, however. It is time for Congress and the wireless phone industry to take highway safety a step beyond seat belts and air bags.
 

More Articles in Opinion » A version of this article appeared in print on December 13, 2009, on page WK8 of the New York edition.

 

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