Ken Garcia: Put down that cell phone and pay attention to the road 

Advocating laws that bring more government into homes, backyards, clubs or cars has never made much sense to me, even though I have to admit the Legislature’s proposal to limit cell phone use in cars seems like a pretty good call.

Now if the state could just extend the cell phone crackdown to bars, restaurants, stores and other shared public spaces, we might really be on to something.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently supports the idea of removing one of the primary distractions to drivers — and you can certainly see why, given his own record of tooling around on motorcycles. Of course, it generally helps all concerned if drivers of any vehicles actually have licenses, but it appears a lot of people have developed a fear of Department of Motor Vehicles lines.

Everybody seems to have an anecdote about some cell-phone-using driver drifting into other lanes or running through a stop light. But there are so many bad drivers in and around San Francisco, blaming all those who see octagonal red signs as gas-and-go markers would be overkill. Still, cell phones certainly aren’t improving their driving habits.

I was never sold on a lot of the data that wasput together showing the dangers of cell phone use and driving because when the California Highway Patrol collected data five years ago, it said that cell phones could be blamed in 913 accidents resulting in three fatalities and 423 injuries. Yet when the Los Angeles Times looked at the same data, it determined that cell phones caused more than 4,500 collisions, 31 fatalities and 2,700 injuries.

And that just shows that when it comes to getting any real figures on collisions caused by cell phones, a lot of people are getting wrong numbers.

But the real problem with cell phones isn’t that they can be such a distraction, but that they’re so ubiquitous that people aren’t even aware of how rude and often ridiculous they can be when they’re using them. You’ve seen them — people mindlessly yapping away while seated at the adjoining booth or standing in a line. The cell phone has all but blurred the sense of privacy and personal space. They may not pose the same health concerns as smoking in public places, but it may be time to start hounding cell phone users about dialing up in your local bar or restaurant.

As much as I hate to date myself, there was actually a time — not all that long ago — when society actually managed to function without a phone permanently attached to one’s hip or ear. And while there’s no getting around the convenience, ease and the occasional safety functions that cell phones can provide, people have become so addicted to them that they have no compunction chatting away endlessly — and for no apparent reason — in elevators, grocery lines, coffee shops, on tennis courts and, of course, in cars.

So it will be interesting to see, if Schwarzenegger signs the bill, whether it will have any effect on anyone’s behavior. It would impose a fine of $20 for a first offense (that is, talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving; hands-free devices are allowed) and a $50 citation for subsequent offenses. The infractionwon’t affect insurance because no points will be added to a person’s driving record.

The real question is, will cops and CHP officers enforce it? It’s hard to imagine that any peace officer is going to make talking on a cell phone a high priority. And I certainly don’t think any agency is going to want to request cell phone records for anyone who denies that they were on the phone while driving.

A few years ago the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a study on drivers in New York, which became the first state in the country to prohibit drivers from chatting on hand-held devices. And guess what? The study found that after an initial period when drivers stopped talking as much on their cell phones, they went back to using them nearly as much within a year or so.

And the study found that cell phone citations made up only 2 percent of all traffic citations.

Of course, it’s still legal to watch movies, play video games or to apply makeup while driving, so I’m not sure it’s going to lessen the innumerable distractions available to our new technological generation. And those Blackberries can be awfully cumbersome, even for the most organized among us.

But for some there will be a real upside — at least those who would pay attention to the law. Just think of all the minutes you could save.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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