Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Get off the phone while driving

Two years after the ban on hand-held cellphones while driving took effect on Oahu, many drivers continue to bring their phones to the ear. That has brought $1.6 million in fines to the city’s coffers — and while the money is certainly welcome, the danger remains, partly because the ordinance is flawed.

The ordinance initially created a high demand for Bluetooth headsets, which are legal to use on Oahu while driving. That disparity indicates to many motorists that talking on the Bluetooth phone while driving is safe, while holding a cellphone to the ear is not, which is wrong.

Despite the threat of Oahu’s $97 fine, many cellphone users continue to break the law because they don’t think their driving is impaired. That’s a mistaken impression — one perpetuated by the city ordinance that fails to recognize the cause of the distraction. Study after study have shown that hands-free is as dangerous as hand-held, equivalent to driving with a .08 blood alcohol content.

Texting, applying lipstick, eating a sandwich and flossing all distract the driver. Using cellphones while driving does so in a different way: The distraction comes from conversing on the cellphones, not merely handling them. Unlike chatting with a passenger, a driver’s conversation over the cellphone is outside the context of traffic that can be seen by a passenger.

The distraction comes not from the motorist briefly taking eyes off the road but from the diversion of a driver’s attention "to an engaging cognitive context other than the one immediately associated with driving," according to research. As a consequence, the driver may drive too fast or too slow and weave in and out of lanes. Other drivers can tell that the motorist with a phone to the ear — or Bluetooth fastened to the ear — is in another zone.

In the six months after the Honolulu ordinance took effect on July 1, 2009, about 320 drivers a month were ticketed for violating it. Over the past 18 months, Honolulu police have averaged more than triple that number of cellphone tickets per month. Hawaii’s other counties have enacted similar ordinances in the past year.

Politicians are understandably reluctant to annoy cellphone users, as the number of Americans subscribing to wireless services has grown from 60 million in 1998 to 310 million — a whopping 96 percent of the population. And a lot of them, unfortunately, talk over the cellphone while driving.

Nationally, of the 5,474 people killed in traffic accidents in 2009 because of distracted drivers, 995 were killed by drivers distracted by cellphones, according to the National Traffic Safety Association.

Just as it took Hawaii’s seat belt law to start imparting the message — and habit — of buckling up for safety, so too does this fledgling cellphone ban attempt to push road safety via a penalty fine.

Drivers may choose to abide by the law to avoid getting ticketed for holding a cellphone to the ear. To drive safely by avoiding undue distraction, however, the smart driver will refrain from any outside conversation, by cellphone or hands-off phone. A sedan is 4,000-plus pounds of metal hurtling forward at an average freeway speed of 60 miles per hour: Keep your hands on the wheel, and your eyes and mind on the road.

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