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New Cell Phone Technology Tempting for Parents, if Impractical

January 22, 2009 11:29 AM
by Cara McDonough
Inventors debut gadgets to stop young drivers from using cell phones though the simplest solution—getting people to hang up the phone—works best.

Fancy New Gadgets and a Push for New Legislation

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The new technology, aimed at keeping cell phones from being used in the car, may sound good, but the details still need some working out, reports the Associated Press. A product developed by WQN Inc., for example, uses GPS technology, which can determine how fast a person is traveling, but cannot tell whether the person is driving or even in a car. Therefore it can lock a phone when its owner isn’t actually driving.

Another, called the DriveAssistT system, suffers from the same fatal flaw. The system disables phones at driving speeds, sending a text message to the caller saying the person they are trying to reach is driving. But again, the service may kick in for non-driving cell phone users who don’t need it, such as car passengers.

But for some, technology is not the answer to safer driving.

"I wish technology providers would look hard at the problems before coming up with a knee-jerk solution,” said Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, who added that the best course of action is education and awareness about the dangers of driving while distracted. Parents worried about their teenage drivers, who notoriously use cell phones for talking and texting while driving, need to make rules and ensure their children stick to them, she said.

Others see new legislation as the only way to go. The National Safety Council this month is advocating a total ban on cell phone use while driving, saying the practice leads to numerous fatalities. Chief Executive Janet Froetscher even compared it to driving while drunk.

"When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It's time to take the cell phone away," she said, according to an Associated Press story in the Houston Chronicle.

Although no state currently has a total ban on using cell phones while driving, California, Washington, New York, Utah, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. currently ban hand-held cell phone use while driving and it appears that drivers are taking note. Last summer, California electronics stores reported a large jump in sales of hands-free cell phone devices. Numerous studies, however, show that cell phones and cars don’t mix, hands-free or not.

The National Safety Council is considering those studies in advocating for a total ban on cell phones while driving. "It's not just what you're doing with your hands—it's that your head is in the conversation and so your eyes are not on the road," Froetscher said.

But will drivers set in their ways obey a law? One Detroit Free Press columnist says no. Many drivers see nothing wrong with the practice, wrote Matt Helms, and police are already outnumbered and would have a hard time trying to stop them. “We need a big solution to the distraction problem, something more comprehensive than merely passing a law,” he said.

Background: Cell phone driving laws

Why are drivers so attached to using the phones in the car, despite the risks? They may simply feel entitled.

In May 2008, Nationwide Insurance released the results of a study of 1,500 drivers that found 81 percent of them used their phones while driving, even though at least 40 percent of them had been hit, or almost hit, by another driver talking on a phone. The most common excuses cited were busy schedules and time pressures.

Countless studies have documented the dangers of the practice, and studies continue to do so. In 2005, University of Utah researchers announced the results of a study showing that drivers talking on cell phones were 18 percent slower to hit the brakes than drivers who weren’t on the phone.

Traffic accidents may not be the only thing drivers risk when using cell phones. Some researchers say cell phones may cause cancer, such as Devra Lee Davis, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s center for environmental oncology. In July, he issued a memo to 3,000 members of his staff, suggesting they reduce their cell phone use. “I don't know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don’t know that they are safe,” she wrote.

Reference: Cell phone laws

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