Don't Overpay While Driving - Put Down Your Cell and Save $101


My home state of Washington is set to require, by law, that drivers who want to yack on the cell phone use a hands-free set or earpiece. Another bill, banning text messaging while driving, which is arguably even more dangerous, has already passed the state House and is expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law soon.

Car-based phone conversation against the law? But we're only making it a secondary offense here. Hey, that's how the whole whacky seatbelt-usin' craze got started!

The bill passed on a 59-38 vote in the House, where it has gotten stopped in prior years. It passed the Senate last month, but must head back to the Senate for concurrence before going to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is expected to sign it.

Under the proposed law, if you're caught holding a cell phone when you're pulled over for another infraction, such as speeding, you could be slapped with an extra $101 fine.

I know that in most states, the people talking on cell phones who nearly run you over tend to be the high-powered exec-holes stampeding across the freeways in their shiny new BMWs. That's certainly the case in the San Francisco Bay Area (have you noticed that it's often the jerks who can afford a Blue Tooth headset that don't buy them?).

In Washington, you are more likely to be crushed under the wheels of a soccer-mom's SUV or a female teenager's junker-mobile because she was busy gabbing with her girlfriend to notice that other people, also in moving vehicles, are sharing the road with her. I know it's a stereotype, but it's borne out of experience and some actual data.

Drivers in the Seattle area aren't necessarily rude or irresponsibly speedy, but they are flightier than a flock of pigeons. People here regularly run Stop signs, change lanes with nary a shoulder check, and appear surprised when other drivers express horn-based or finger-raising disapproval while simultaneously swerving out of Chatty Cathy's way.

Fortunately, our upcoming law has some reasonable exceptions to the rule.

Under the measure, a person operating a moving vehicle while holding a wireless communications device to the ear would be guilty of a traffic infraction, although enforcement would be as a secondary offense, meaning that the driver would have had to commit another infraction in order to be pulled over for this one. Infractions would not be reported to insurance companies. The prohibition would not apply to someone driving an emergency vehicle, using a hands-free wireless device or to report illegal activity, summon emergency assistance or prevent injury. The bill also would exempt tow truck drivers responding to disabled vehicles.

Some people have charged that truly unsafe driving behavior is not going to be legislated out of existence with this bill. This might be true. Two days ago, I nearly crashed into a concrete wall while trying to avoid being hit by someone who had bent down to rummage through her purse while driving. She drifted into my lane, seemingly oblivious to the idea that anyone might actually be occupying the lane. My honking did not deter her - she clearly needed something in her purse VERY badly. As we pulled up to a stop light (and she did, miraculously, stop her car), I saw that she had finally managed to dislodge the item from her handbag. Medicine? An inhaler?

Lipstick. She applied it carefully while sitting at the stoplight, while I weighed my options, most of which included denting her door or screaming like a madwoman, neither of which would have gotten me anywhere good. Instead, I wrote down her license plate number and reported her erratic behavior to the local police.

So, no - this Hands-Free legislation isn't going to stop Lipstick McDipstick from careening around the roadway while digging through her sizable purse.

But this doesn't mean that the dangers of cell-phone wielding drivers is any less. In fact, as reported on last year, cell phone gabbers fared worse than drunk drivers in a driving test study conducted by the University of Utah.

The phone users fared even worse than the inebriated, the Utah team found. There were three accidents among those talking on cell phones -- all of them involving a rear-ending of the pace car. In contrast, there were no accidents recorded among participants who were drunk, or the sober, cell-phone-free group.

Oh, that's great news. I'm better off driving drunk than answering the cell phone in my car while sober?

Another problem? In the study, headset-wearing chatters were just as bad as the ones holding the handsets.

"We have seen again and again that there is no difference between hands-free and hand-held devices," Drews said. "The problem is the conversation," he added.

According to Drews, drivers talking on the phone are paying attention to the conversation -- not their driving. "Drivers are not perceiving the driving environment," he said. "We found 50 percent of the visual information wasn't processed at all -- this could be a red light. This increases the risk of getting into an accident dramatically," he said.

The reason that there aren't more accidents linked to cell phone use is probably due to the reactions of other -- more alert -- drivers, Drews said. "Currently, our system seems to be able to handle 8 percent of cell-phone drivers, because other drivers are paying attention," he said. "They are compensating for the errors these drivers are causing," he speculated.

Of course, I'm not sure how we can legislate against hands-free conversations by drivers. Anyone who sees my mother driving would think that she is talking on a hands-free set, when in fact, she is merely carrying on the longstanding family tradition of talking outloud to oneself.

I'm curious to see where this new law will take us - safer driving, or simply more money in the state coffers? Lord knows we need it for our educational funding, and since we don't have state income tax here, maybe this feeble attempt can help us provide, oh, say, living wages to our teachers?

(Photo by David Kitchenham)

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