WHILE CELLULAR phones have emerged as one of the great conveniences in life, everyone should stop pretending that it’s safe to use them behind the wheel. Massachusetts, certainly, has been slow to deal with the problem. While negotiators for the state House and Senate are working out details of a bill that would ban drivers under 18 from talking on cellphones and sending text messages, it remains unclear whether lawmakers are willing to apply the same restrictions to adults.
In fact, a categorical ban on all types of cellphone use by all drivers is in order.
Since almost every adult with a cellphone and a car has been guilty of using both at the same time, lawmakers’ hesitation is understandable. There is great convenience in talking on the phone while driving, and it can increase the productivity of executives who can participate in conference calls while on the road.
Unfortunately, the evidence is clear: distracted driving is a lethal problem. The National Safety Council estimates that a quarter of all crashes in the United States — 1.4 million crashes, with 645,000 injuries — involve cellphones. Distracted driving kills 6,000 people a year nationwide, with cellphones being the likely culprit in more than 40 percent of fatalities.
In a visit to MIT last week, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke of a “deadly epidemic.’’ If any other activity caused the deaths of 6,000 people it would be banned overnight. Laws aimed at restricting cellphone usage in cars are inching their way across America, state by state.
So far, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 25 states ban texting while driving. Seven states and the District of Columbia ban drivers from talking on handheld devices. But while so-called hands-free phones prevent accidents related to fumbling with handhelds, they do not solve the fundamental problem: Drivers who are distracted by conversations with people who aren’t in the vehicle. Yes, the same kind of distractions can come from screaming toddlers or quarreling spouses inside the car, but that’s no argument for using technology to allow similar distractions from outside the car.
Massachusetts has been notably laggard in dealing with this problem. And passing legislation that only affects teen drivers would be a serious cop-out. Police statewide should be given primary enforcement to stop motorists and ticket them solely for talking or texting on a cellphone. The fine should equal that of a speeding violation, with penalty points put on driving records.
The fact that so many drivers talk on phones while driving isn’t an argument for tolerating it. Rather, the ubiquity of the problem attests to the need for tough legislation. Without strong action, this fatal epidemic will only get worse.