Eyes on the road, please

It's past time to balance the popularity of cellphone use with growing related safety concerns.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration says cellular phone use is an increasing factor in car crashes. According to a Harvard Center for Risk Analysis study, more than 80 percent of the nation's 94 million cellphone owners use their phones while driving.

Recent moves to eliminate holding a cellphone and maneuvering an automobile with the other hand (or even sometimes the knees, as drivers fumble to look for a pencil at the same time they're talking) are actions long overdue. Consider these encouraging developments:

* Worrying about more liability lawsuits, some business firms, including the unlikely Verizon Wireless (which has an obvious stake in promoting cellphones), broke from the telecommunications pack and wisely issued its employees hands-free cellphones. They have to take a defensive driving class which includes sound advice not to dial the phone when the car is moving, and preprogramming frequently dialed numbers.

* New York City cabbies are barred from using cellphones while driving.

* This year alone, more than 20 states introduced bills restricting the use of cellphones.

* Suffolk County, N.Y., now has the nation's first countywide ban on handheld cellphones in cars.

No doubt cellphones continue to be valuable safety and security devices. But as more data on their role in car mishaps is collected, more consumers will want to take advantage of devices to convert their phones to hands-free use.

Sixteen countries have either restricted or outright banned talking on cellphones while driving.

The US has lagged behind, mostly because of an argument that talking on the phone is no different from many other distractions, such as munching on food.

Let's not add to the already difficult job of driving a car on ever-more crowded roads, especially when we already have preventive means.

Keeping both hands on the steering wheel, and using hands-free cellphone use in cars for necessary calls, is a move that just makes sense.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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