Cellphones are everywhere.
The notion of a telephone that could be instantaneously available anywhere was the stuff of science fiction in the quite recent past.
Twenty-five years ago, almost nobody had a cellphone. Today, it's hard to find anyone who does not. It has become possible to place or receive a phone call virtually anywhere. More than 200 million people and businesses in the United States subscribe to wireless communication devices, according to an issue paper produced by the Insurance Information Institute.
The advantages that provides in terms of conducting both personal and work-related business are apparent. For travelers stranded on a deserted roadway far from home and for anyone needing emergency assistance, cellphones may quite literally be lifesavers.
The proliferation of cellphones can also be an annoyance. The ring can come at an inopportune moment or in an inappropriate place. Most of us have been subjected to being included in at least one side of someone else's conversation being conducted well within earshot.
On balance, however, the problems cellphones have created are far outweighed by the benefits they provide.
Except, that is, when it comes to those people who use handheld cellphones while driving.
These folks are everywhere and their numbers are on the rise. Several years ago, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. released a study finding that 73 percent of drivers talk on cellphones while driving. The problem has become greater since that research was conducted.
That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. We've all witnessed this behavior:
- The teenager with phone in one hand in rapt conversation with a friend while navigating traffic or even attempting to parallel park. Worse yet, while text messaging or accessing the Internet.
- The shopper traversing a busy shopping center parking lot, phone in hand and mind only partially aware of the moving cars and pedestrians so dangerously close.
- The business person intent on closing a sale while speeding down a busy highway.
The particulars vary, but the essential facts are straightforward:
- Just one hand is on the steering wheel.
- Only a portion of the person's attention is being devoted to the business of maintaining control of a moving vehicle.
According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some form of driver distraction.
Just how many of these were related to the use of cellphones while driving isn't known. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, however, to figure out that having one hand off the steering wheel and one's mind engaged in the particulars of a conversation compromise the ability to drive safely.
Unfortunately, common sense doesn't prevent drivers from behaving foolishly and endangering themselves and others.
That has led to a number of states adopting an assortment of restrictions on the use of handheld cellphones while driving.
A new legislative session is underway in Des Moines. Gov. Terry Branstad called attention to the need for action regarding unsafe use of mobile devices in his Condition of the State address in January. The Messenger urges members of the Legislature to take a serious look at additional regulatory options that might stem risky device use while on the road.
Distracted drivers pose a risk to themselves and everyone else.
And while our legislators ponder, we should all turn off those phones while we drive.