Monday, May 14, 2001
BEYOND being an annoyance in public places, cellular phones increasingly are recognized as a potential cause of traffic accidents. Testimony before a House committee was sharply divided about how serious the risk has become, but some legislation obviously is needed to address the problem, probably at the state level. Hawaii's Legislature, which rejected such legislation in the past session, should impose restrictions when it meets again.
Law should limit use
of cell phones in cars
The issue: Has the growth of
cell phone use in cars increased
the number of traffic accidents?
Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, told a House transportation subcommittee that a driver's inattention causes up to 30 percent of traffic accidents, or about 4,300 accidents a day. Using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, he said, is two to five times more dangerous than changing the radio station or eating lunch.
National attention focused on the issue two weeks ago after supermodel Niki Taylor was severely injured in Georgia when a car in which she was riding crashed into a utility poll. The driver, friend Chad Renegar, said he looked down to answer his cell phone when he ran off the road.
"For just a moment, I was distracted by something that was not part of what I should've been doing at the moment, which was driving, and the result of that has changed the lives of three people and their families," Renegar said. "Think about things like that. There's nothing on that phone that can be nearly as important as what's going on in front of you."
In Hawaii, 12-year-old Nancy Phongsavath was killed and her friend Hilovelyn Lua, 10, remains in a coma from injuries suffered last August when a van went out of control and struck them on a sidewalk in Kalihi. A police report and phone records indicate that the driver, Ryan Miguel, was answering his company's cell phone at about the time the accident occurred.
"Decisions on the safe use of technology in vehicles should be based on sound science and not anecdotal information," said Harold Worrall, chairman of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit group representing transportation departments, companies, universities and others involved in high-tech projects. Worrall maintained that "there is little substantive research" to warrant legislation.
To the contrary, a 14-month study published four years ago by the New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of a collision when using a cell phone quadrupled -- about the same effect as legal intoxication. Other studies have confirmed the danger of using cell phones while driving. Opponents of legislation point out that accident scenes, other vehicles or things outside the car are much more distracting, but those occurrences are unavoidable.
While there is some evidence that hands-free cell phones disturb a driver's attention as much as hand-held ones, phone dialogue itself is distracting because of its interactive nature, unlike listening to the radio. Banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving would be a good starting point. Requiring drivers to pull over before making a call or returning one is both reasonable and enforceable.
These are parlous times in U.S. foreign relations and the nation's friends and foes alike should take note of the mood.
U.S foreign relations
endures uneasy times
The issue: Warning signs
are floating up in United
States foreign relations.
After the United Nations unceremoniously voted the United States out of the Human Rights Commission, the House of Representatives in Washington retaliated by voting to withhold $244 million in U.N. dues for next year. "This will teach countries a lesson," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California. "Actions have consequences."
The House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, urged his colleagues to strike back at the U.N., saying: "Send the world a message." The vote to hold back the funds passed 252 to 165, a sizable margin.
Then the formidable Jesse Helms, Republican senator from North Carolina and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told an interviewer: "It's perfectly outrageous the way China is pushing us around...Some way, somehow it's got to stop."
It would be tempting to brush off these expressions of pique as isolated, passing comments in the rough and tumble of American politics and international relations. That would be mistaken, however, as something deeper and harder to define appears to be at work. This is not a matter of right or wrong but of realistic politics in which all foreign relations are rooted.
There is an isolationist streak in American life that is never very far below the surface. In their heads, Americans know they must take responsible positions in international affairs; in their guts, they are all too willing to tell the rest of the world to pack it in.
Conversely, Americans have a capacity, which has surprised other people for the last 100 years, to lash out if they are pushed too far. The vote on U.N. dues is a case in point.
Moreover, a sense of fatigue appears to have set in. Americans see themselves as the guys in white hats who ride out to defend other nations, extend generous amounts of foreign aid, open their markets to imports from other countries, and try to find reasonable solutions to the myriad of problems that afflict the world.
When the guys in black hats slap the white hats in the face, or bully Uncle Sam, or spew a stream of vitriolic propaganda at America, it gets tiresome. That's when Americans tend to strike back, and other people should understand that.
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