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Calls for cell phone ban might get answered

RALEIGH — For a decade or more, North Carolina legislators have introduced bills to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

And for a decade or more, those bills have gone nowhere.

The result might be different in 2011.

New House Speaker Thom Tillis supports a ban. He and some other legislators took to a road course set up by the state Highway Patrol, driving golf carts while both using and not using hand-held cell phones.

He says it is time for a ban, even while acknowledging that legislation to prohibit the practice will face resistance.

After all, few people take the road more than state legislators driving back and forth to Raleigh. You can bet more than a few use their cell phones on those trips, doing business, politicking and taking care of personal chores.

Not that a ban would necessarily end the practice. Hands-free cell phones would be allowed under one of the bills filed by Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat and one of the chief proponents of cell phone driving restrictions. A Pierce bill passed in 2009 did ban cell phone texting while driving.

The state also outlaws hand-held phone use for school-bus drivers and for all drivers under 18.

But legislators need to ask whether banning held-held cell calls while driving — but allowing the hands-free devices — will accomplish much.

An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analysis of 120 separate cell phone studies found that the chances of an accident increases whether a driver is using hands-free devices or a hand-held phone. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study actually had test drivers shift from an ear clip hands-free device to a less conventional device because the drivers spent so much time adjusting the ear clip.

If the problem is a driver using his or her hands, then maybe banning eating while driving would be in order, too. If, on the other hand, the problem is the distraction caused by conversation, then a ban on hand-held phones may not improve public safety.

Studies examining drivers’ use of cell phones also should be scrutinized in light of broader trends in highway safety.

Over the past two decades, as more and more people have begun using cell phones, accident rates per mile driven in the United States have largely remained unchanged. Accidents involving death and injury have declined.

Safer roads and safer cars may partly explain the trends. But the numbers tend to refute notions that a cell phone-inspired traffic accident plague is upon us.

Also worth considering: North Carolina has a law on the books which seems to take into account all forms of distracted driving that endangers others.

Reckless driving is a criminal misdemeanor. It’s defined as operating a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others” or driving “without due caution” so as to endanger others.

Yakking on a cell phone, without paying attention to your driving, would seem to fit the definition.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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