Statewide cell phone ban warranted


POSTED: Monday, August 03, 2009

Hawaii and most other states have been derelict in responding to the danger of motorists talking on cellular phones or texting, but a proposal in Congress to punish those states would send the wrong message with a heavy hand. Hawaii lawmakers should enact comprehensive legislation that deals with the wider problem in their next session.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill that would withhold 25 percent of federal highway funds from states that don't ban texting by drivers. University of Utah researchers have found that motorists increase their risk of crashing by eight times when texting. A study last week by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded the risk is 23 times greater for truck drivers.

“;Studies show this is far more dangerous than talking on a phone while driving or driving while drunk,”; Schumer said. He did not mention that studies also show that talking on a phone while driving is as dangerous at driving while drunk. The Utah researchers found eight years ago that the distraction of driving while talking on a cell phone—hand-held or hands-free—increases the risk of crashing by four times, about the same as driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level.

Schumer's proposal makes no mention of cellular phones, implying by omission that driving while on the phone is not a danger or at least is not one to be taken seriously. Ironically, Congress has authorized the Department of Transportation to provide grants as an incentive to states that enforce the 0.08 blood alcohol content as the threshold for driving drunk.

Congress has used the carrot-and-stick approach to states with highway funds for decades. In 1973, it threatened to withhold up to 10 percent of funds from states without a maximum 55 mph speed limit as a means of conserving fuel, backing away from the mandate in 1995. In 1982, it approved legislation to withhold a portion of highway funds from states that did not have a minimum drinking age of 21.

Each time Congress does that, guardians of states' rights grimace, and rightly so. The Governors Highway Safety Association, comprised of state highway safety officials from every state, declared that it opposes texting while driving but does not support Schumer's bill.

“;We oppose sanctioning states since there is not yet a proven effective method for enforcing a texting or cell-phone ban,”; an association spokesman said.

Texting while driving is banned in 14 states, and only five states and the District of Columbia require drivers who talk on cell phones to use hands-free devices. A Honolulu ordinance that bans driving while texting or talking on hand-held cell phones—hands-free cell phones are allowed—took effect July 1, but the Legislature has not seriously dealt with the issue on a statewide basis. Schumer's bill should nudge lawmakers to do so.