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The Big Hang Up

June 11, 2009
Sarah Ruppenthal · Editorial Assistant

Several weeks ago, I was driving to work when I noticed the woman in the car beside me furiously applying mascara in her rearview mirror. If that wasn’t interesting enough, she also had a cell phone pressed to her ear.

It’s likely most of us have witnessed “distracted driver” behaviors out on the roadway: fixing hair and makeup, balancing a checkbook, even reading the newspaper—yes, this really does happen! But most often, we encounter drivers too absorbed in talking, dialing, text messaging and checking email on their mobile phones.

You may have experienced a distracted driver who single-handedly (pun intended) cut you off in traffic—a driver so engrossed in conversation that he or she failed to notice the light changed five minutes ago. Or a talkative driver oblivious to the line of cars trailing behind him—in the fast lane. What is the common denominator here? Cell phones, of course. Once considered to be the pinnacle of convenient communication, these mobile devices can pose significant hazards—and in some cases may be the impetus for road rage.

While some of us—myself included—believe we can multitask in the driver’s seat without imperiling others, emerging research indicates most drivers just can’t navigate properly with one hand and a half a mind behind the wheel.

In a recent study conducted by the Harvard University Center of Risk Analysis, analysts determined cell phone use while driving led to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year. According to Janet Froetscher, CEO of the National Safety Council, “Driving while talking on a cell phone is extremely dangerous and puts drivers at a four times greater risk of a crash… driving drunk is also dangerous and against the law. When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It’s time to take the cell phone away.”

Many states have banned the use of wireless devices while operating a vehicle, but not all have made the move—including the State of Hawai‘i.

However, on July 1, Honolulu will begin to enforce a ban on using handheld electronic devices while driving, and Hawai‘i Island will start cracking down on cell phone-using drivers Jan. 1, 2010. If caught “dialing and driving,” violators will be subject to fines up to $500.

It’s just a matter of time before Maui County considers this type of legislation. Yet for those drivers who rely on a cell phone to get through the daily grind, it won’t be an  easy habit to break.

But thankfully, there are alternatives. Hands-free accessories, such as cyborg-esque Bluetooth earpieces, headsets and surround-sound speakerphone systems, are perfectly legal. They may not eliminate the distraction entirely, but these gadgets allow drivers to have a conversation with both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. While some may mourn the loss of their mobile phone, free use of a hands-free device is certainly a fair compromise—and a good way to avoid pushing the wrong buttons out on the roadway.



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