CELL PHONES, electronic devices take drivers' eyes off the road

Wednesday, May 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congress is getting an earful about the dangers posed by drivers who chat on cell phones when they should be watching for red lights, sharp curves and stop signs.

An array of groups is coming before a House subcommittee Wednesday to bemoan what many safety experts consider traffic's new national nightmare.

``Driving distraction associated with electronic devices has the potential to pose a serious public health risk,'' says Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in testimony prepared for the House Transportation panel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a driver's inattention causes 20 percent to 30 percent of accidents _ about 1.6 million of the 6.3 million crashes last year _ or around 4,300 accidents a day.

Dingus said using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving is two to five times more dangerous than changing the radio station or eating lunch, which also can cause drivers to take their eyes off the road. A NHTSA survey found that 54 percent of drivers reported having a cell phone in their car and three-fourths of them have talked on the phone while driving.

``The cell phone has become a significant highway safety concern,'' NHTSA Executive Director L. Robert Shelton said in his testimony.

Last month, supermodel Niki Taylor was severely injured when a car she was riding in crashed into a utility poll. The driver said he looked down to answer his cell phone before the car ran off the road.

And the 2 1/2-year-old daughter of Patricia Pena was killed in 1999 when the family's car was rammed by a vehicle whose driver ran a stop sign while talking on a cell phone.

``It is hard enough to lose a loved one, but to lose a loved one for such a senseless reason as a phone call is an even bigger burden to bear,'' said Pena, founder of Advocates for Cell Phone Safety.

The industry says there is no evidence showing that drivers talking on cell phones are more likely to cause accidents. Statistics in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee blame cell phones in less than half of 1 percent of crashes, said Tom Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the trade group for the cell phone industry.

Cell phones can be invaluable to drivers in an emergency, Wheeler said.

``Wireless phones are the greatest safety tools invented since the creation of 911 (the emergency telephone number) itself,'' Wheeler said. ``A wireless phone out of all potential driver distractions is the only one that could possibly save your life or the life of another.''

Lawmakers need more information before they decide to legislate, said Harold Worrall, chairman of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit group that represents transportation departments, companies, universities, and others involved in high-tech projects.

``Decisions on the safe use of technology in vehicles should be based on sound science and not anecdotal information,'' Worrall said. ``Presently, there is little substantive research to assist lawmakers and regulators in crafting public policy and drafting guidelines to protect the public. We need more solid research.''

All sides agree drivers must be encouraged to keep their eyes on the road. Public service announcements delivering that message are being broadcast by the cellular industry group, working with the National Safety Council, and the ABC Radio Networks, working with the federal highway safety agency.