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What the cellphone industry won't tell you

Next time you get a call on the road, pull over.

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In mid-January, the National Safety Council called for a nationwide ban on the use of cellphones while driving, citing overwhelming evidence of the risk of injuries and death from driver distraction.

California has banned texting behind the wheel and, along with several other states, prohibits the use of hand-held phones while allowing drivers to talk with hands-free devices. But research has shown talking is risky even when both hands are free, because the mind is somewhere else.

About 4 in 5 cellphone owners make calls while driving, and nearly 1 in 5 sends text messages, according to a survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. The habit is so deeply ingrained that the likelihood of all-out bans seems practically nil.

Individuals still can make the sensible decision to hang up and drive, but they won't get any encouragement from the wireless industry.

"A sensible, a responsible and a brief phone call, we think, can be made, and sometimes needs to be made, in order for life's everyday challenges to be met," said a senior official of the main industry trade group, known as CTIA – The Wireless Association.

No business is comfortable telling its customers what to do – particularly when the advice weighs against its bottom line. It's not surprising then that wireless providers have taken the familiar road of denying scientific research and plain common sense.

Studies have shown that cellphone conversations can blind drivers to visual cues, slowing reaction time and situational awareness. Researchers at the University of Utah tested drivers and found that they performed no better, and by some measures worse, while talking on a cellphone than they did when they had a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent and were legally drunk.

Such information is not available on the CTIA Website. It features the "why pick on us?" defense that drivers engage in all manner of distracting behaviors, from eating to applying makeup – as if one bad habit justifies a worse one. It says "statistics indicate wireless use does not equate to dangerous driving," offering as proof that during a recent period, accidents dropped while the number of drivers and cellphone users was increasing. Because many factors influence crash rates – such as drunken-driving enforcement and safer highway designs – it's a specious claim that proves nothing.


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