Driver, hang up that cell phone

Studies show that driving while talking on the phone can be as dangerous as drunk driving.

Commenting on New York State's legislation that forbids the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving, a recent New York Times editorial raised the concern that too many motorists regard the law as something to ignore rather than obey, and presented statistical evidence that "despite laws against using cell phones in cars, there are still far too many drivers with their ears glued to the phone while their minds wander far from the highway in front of them." We, too, have enacted such legislation, which has become something of the norm in North America and throughout most of Europe. With, unfortunately, little impact; most motorists here as elsewhere, apparently are confident that the laws of probability are on their side and the chances of being caught gabbing while driving remote, at best. The background to the legislation in most countries centered on the distraction caused by mobile phones rather than the loss of control resulting from one-handed driving. Canada, for example, exhaustively studied the issue several years ago, and through sophisticated biometrics methodology demonstrated how the eyes shift downward and attention is directed elsewhere while talking on a telephone. In a living room or kitchen this is no big deal; while driving along a curvy or rain-dampened road, it can be fatal. For this reason more than a few legislatures are flirting with the idea of disallowing the use of mobile phones while driving period, with or without the use of headphones or hands-free kits. Enactment, though, is considerably easier than enforcement, and there is generally no illusion that anything significant will come out of expanding existing legislation. The number of citations, law enforcement officials throughout the world agree, will no more than marginally increase, nor is it very likely that motorists will become any more law-abiding. But while there's something to be said for a symbolic recognition of a problem and an official response to it, the loss of life and the number of injuries caused by peripheral interferences deserve something more than a law that is, in essence, a toothless tiger. THE SERVICE providers and phone manufacturers, not surprisingly, differ from the findings and conclusions. Industry giants, concerned over the potential loss of revenue and profit, are lobbying intensively against imposing additional restrictions on the use of mobile phones while behind the steering wheel, the same way the tobacco products industry opposes legislation and regulation that constrains the sale and consumption of cigarettes. And while I'm not suggesting similarities in the degree of danger the two industries represent, the marketing and messaging strategy of the two are, when you come right down to it, alike in many ways. Israel, oddly, is in a position to take the lead in adopting a more proactive approach to this widespread problem. Acknowledging the alarmingly high rate of road fatalities, debate has begun in Jerusalem on providing tax benefits for motorists who voluntarily equip their automobiles with additional safety features. Though laudable, wider mirrors and more effective air bags touch in no way on driver behavior or conduct. And while hands-free kits will undoubtedly be included in the authorized basket of items, distracted attention syndrome is not something that can be readily corrected with an electronic gizmo or gadget. Not yet, anyway. Now is the time for a cooperative effort between the Ministry of Transportation and the insurance companies to arrive at a concerted strategy for combating this very serious problem. There need to be incentives to encourage drivers to voluntarily keep their mobile phones off while they are behind the wheel. THE SAME tax benefits for installing, let's say, improved headlights should be enjoyed by drivers who agree to a "no mobile while driving" stipulation. Similarly, reduced compulsory insurance rates should be offered to those willingly making this sacrifice, giving full recognition to the added safety margin gained by giving full attention to the control of a moving car. These can only work, of course, if punishment for intentional, non-emergency violations is sufficiently steep, such as those that will surely be implemented for falsely claiming that added safety features have been added to a vehicle. In addition to the immediate loss of the tax break, temporary revocation of driving privileges and sharp increases in insurance premiums would not be at all unreasonable. There will always be one or two who will gladly issue empty promises in order to reap the offered benefits, but I suspect something more acute than a mere fine might make them think twice before punching in numbers while cruising along Highway 6. A marked increase of attention to road safety has been noted over the last half-year or so, the result, no doubt, of a number of some very serious accidents. It's time that talk was promoted to action, and that it begin with the problem of mobile usage while driving, which has been cited by more than a few studies to be no less serious than drunk driving. The Knesset discussion on incentives for safety features has provided a welcome and promising opening. It would be to everybody's advantage to get something done quickly before this window of opportunity slams shut. The writer is media coordinator for Anashim BeAdom (, a volunteer organization committed to reducing the number of fatalities and injuries on Israel's roads.