Do Cell Phones Kill?

There's a different kind of danger lurking in that handset you're holding. Fortunately, there's a technological solution.

For me, it started and ended on the subway.

One day while I waited impatiently for a train I noticed a woman weaving down the platform. She was engrossed with something on her smart phone and just as she passed me she stumbled and nearly fell over the edge and onto the tracks.

In Manhattan, strolling down the sidewalk is a competitive sport. Those who cant walk and talk on their cell phones are likely to receive NHL-caliber body checks. So I thought the woman on the subway platform was lucky and chalked up her distraction to a relatively new toy, akin to those who fell off the first bicycles or ran the first cars off a dirt road. Then I saw a recent study about cell phone use and driving.

For over two years, it has been illegal in New York State to use a hand-held cellular telephone to engage in a call while driving, "pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1225c." So the only way you can legally make a call in a car is if you have a hands-free unit or you are parked. Anecdotally, I noticed that in New York City drivers seemed to flaunt the law with impunity. Every day, women on cell phones steering SUVs nearly run over the children they are supposed to be picking up. Every evening, men gabbing on handsets and trying to manage a right turn and a manual shift behind the wheel of Porsches nearly plow over pedestrians in crosswalks. Just lawless NYC, I thought. Then came the study.

Conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety the study found that when the New York cell phone law was first introduced in 2001 the number of drivers using cell phones dropped from 2.3 to 1.1 percent. However, just 15 months later, New Yorkers where chattering away again with cell phone handset use behind the wheel climbing back up to 2.1 percent.

Granted there is some small debate about whether handset users cause more accidents, but the debate is small indeed. Dont tell me there are greater distractions in the car. Of course there are, but thats not the point. We cant do anything about bickering spouses or rowdy kids. And of course, cell phones used in an emergency on the road doubtless save lives.

But anyone who traverses the highways around NYC can tell you that handset users also block more traffic than the Thanksgiving Day parade and create more hazards than an ice storm. I myself log about 500 miles a week behind the wheel and witness my share of drivers with handsets blocking the Hutchinson River Parkway passing lane and making dangerous lane changes. No matter what, people insist on clutching their phones, echoing Hestons "from my cold dead hands" refrain. So the question is, why are people so blatantly flaunting the law?

According to the Insurance Institute report it is not because theres no enforcement. During the same period that the study covers about 100,000 tickets for cell phone use were issued. The penalty ranges from $54 to $1,000. Granted, you can get a stiffer fine for parking illegally in Manhattan.

So if its not a lack of enforcement, why do people continue to weave and talk?