WASHINGTON — The cellular phone: The newest terror on the highways, or a minor distraction that has saved lives?
It all depended on who was talking Wednesday at a congressional hearing long on anecdotal evidence and short on supporting statistics.
Lacking numbers, members of a House Transportation subcommittee and witnesses traded tales of drivers weaving from lane to lane while reading a newspaper, or running stop signs while talking on the phone.
About the only certainty that came out of the hearing was the reality that Congress is neither ready nor inclined to restrict drivers from using cell phones or other electronic devices.
“I’m not certain we can legislate this behavior,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, even as she told the story of a friend who died in a car crash while talking on a cell phone.
Patricia Pena, her voice cracking, told a hushed committee room of the death of her 2-year-old daughter, killed in an automobile accident involving a driver who ran a stop sign while talking on a cell phone.
“We waited and we prayed. Then the doctors walked in the room,” said Pena, unable to hold back her tears.
“The industry will try to say there are so many other distractions in vehicles,” said Pena, a Pennsylvania resident, who founded Advocates for Cell Phone Safety after her daughter’s death. “Cellular telephone use is a more complex and demanding task. There are simply not comparable distractions.”
Last month, model Niki Taylor was severely injured when a car she was riding in crashed into a utility pole. The driver said he looked down to answer his cell phone before the car ran off the road.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a driver’s inattention causes 20 percent to 30 percent of accidents. That amounts to about 1.6 million of the 6.3 million crashes last year, or around 4,300 accidents a day.
“Who among us hasn’t been behind a car that is weaving or speeding up or slowing down for no apparent reason, only to find that the driver is more interested in reading the paper than watching the road,” said Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the highways and transit subcommittee, which held the hearing.
“My children have to be high on that list in terms of distractions,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., father of three, aged 11, 8 and 4. The cellular industry’s top lobbyist, Tom Wheeler, offered some stories of his own: The family members who helped catch a kidnapper because they called police on their cell phone after spotting the suspect’s van on a highway.
The 8-year-old who used his uncle’s cell phone to call for help after a boating accident. The medical technician who received help over his cell phone while treating a 10-year-old boy lying unconscious after being hit by a car.
“The wireless phone is the greatest safety tool since the development of 911,” said Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the industry’s trade group.
Twenty-seven states are looking at passing their own laws and three – California, Florida and Massachusetts – have minor restrictions on using cell phones in cars, NHTSA said. In addition, about a dozen municipalities have their own cell phone laws. On Monday, the Nassau County, N.Y., legislature voted to ban motorists from using hand-held cell phones while driving.
Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., suggested the federal government help look at ways to make electronic equipment easier to use, the way compact disc players are now part of car radios.
Built-in phones that can automatically dial a phone number when a driver asks could help reduce any distractions, he said.
“We all have anecdotal tales,” Simmons said. “But we are people who want to communicate. And we have the resources to make it safer.”
On the Net:
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: http://www.house.gov/transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov