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There are 25 million cars and trucks in California, and 11 million cell phones.  It’s a potentially deadly mix, but there’s a ready solution, if only we’d take action.

Assembly Bill 911 would require California drivers who choose to use a cell phone to do so “hands-free”.  It’s as simple as that.  Keep using the phone if you like; just use any of the readily available technology which allows you to keep both hands on the wheel.  I introduced this bill because I know it will save lives.  And I believe most Californians support a sensible, safe and sane approach like the one I’ve proposed and New York just adopted.

Thus far, however, critics have kept AB 911 bottled up in the Assembly Transportation Committee. The bill is one vote short of Committee approval – a victim of aggressive lobbying efforts by cell phone companies who tell one story on the street but another in the Capitol.

Inside the Capitol, AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless all argue against a hands-free requirement – either minimizing the risks or arguing that “education rather than legislation” is the right way to go.  Yet all of these companies know, and acknowledge, that a hand-held cell phone is a danger on the road.

In its consumer brochures, AT&T Wireless not only urges its customers to “use a hands-free device if available,” but also suggests that you “pull off the roadway if safe and legal to do so.”  Why?  Because, as AT&T Wireless notes, “Your life and the lives of others are at stake.” Yet they oppose AB 911.

Similarly, Sprint PCS tells its customers, “when using your Sprint PCS Phone in your car, your first priority is safety.”  For that reason, says Sprint PCS, “use a hands-free device.”  That’s important say the folks at Sprint PCS because, “Hands-free accessories allow you to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.”  Yet they also oppose AB 911.

And finally, there’s the friendly advice of Cingular Wireless, who advises us to “use a hands-free device.”  After all, their brochure notes: “Careless, distracted individuals and people driving irresponsibly represent a hazard to everyone on the road.”  But they too oppose AB 911.

Notwithstanding their marketing claims to the contrary, these companies now argue that the issue “needs more study”, or that the data are inconclusive.  I disagree, and here’s why.

We have the results of almost two dozen studies over the past 20 years.  Virtually all of them confirm what both common sense and experience make abundantly clear: When you’ve got one hand on the wheel and one hand clutching a cell phone to your ear, you’re not in complete control of your car.

The only question seems to be, just how dangerous is this every-day practice?  The New England Journal of Medicine says drivers using a cell phone are four times as likely to be in an accident as those who aren’t.  Studies in the journal of “Accident Analysis and Prevention”, however, indicate that the risk of fatalities is nine times greater for drivers using a cell phone than for drivers who don’t.

Undeniably, we’re talking about many thousands of accidents and billions of dollars in damage, in addition to the loss of lives.  The low-end estimate is that cell phone use causes 100 fatalities a year on our national highways, while other estimates run as high as 600 deaths annually. 

And what we know from these studies is consistent with what we know from experience in other nations.  More than 20 countries in Europe and Asia already limit or prohibit the use of cell phones while driving.

The British Department of Transportation issues a standard warning:  “Never use a hand-held phone while driving.  You are not in full control of your vehicle if you are holding a mobile phone while driving.”  That squares with experience in Japan, where police reported better than a 50% reduction in accidents among drivers with cell phones once Japan’s hands-free requirement went into effect.

In the face of all this evidence, opponents have argued that there are other distractions like eating a hamburger, shaving, or putting on lipstick – what about them?  Well, what about them?

No one would argue that just because we can’t eliminate all the distractions affecting driver safety, we shouldn’t eliminate the ones we can.  We fix the problems we can fix.  Besides which, we don’t have a hands-free technology yet for shaving, putting on your lipstick or eating a hamburger!

We do, however, have a hands-free cell phone technology readily available at next to no cost.  Let’s put it to use, and save lives now.



Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) is a member of the Assembly Transportation Committee.