OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – What’s the difference between driving drunk and driving while talking on a cell phone? Not much, say some transportation officials.
“If you’re out there driving and you see somebody who looks like they’re driving drunk, chances are, once you get up by that person, you’ll notice they’re on their cell phone,” said Chuck Mai, AAA Oklahoma’s managing director of public and government relations. “Their mind is not on their driving.”
Driving while using a cell phone is not generally treated as a dangerous activity by government officials. Only four states (Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Tennessee) even keep statistics on whether a cell phone was in use during a vehicle crash, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There were 148 accidents in 1997 involving Oklahoma drivers who said they were on cell phones, and up from 98 in 1998, according to the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office. Those accidents account for a small portion of the 80,000 accidents reported in Oklahoma in a typical year, but police said the phones likely play a part in many more wrecks than are reported.
Edmond police Sgt. Matt Griffin wonders how many people would answer this question truthfully: “Were you talking on your cell phone when you rear-ended the car in front of you?”
And with the use of wireless phones increasing exponentially, concern among law enforcement officials also is growing.
Using cell phones while driving has even been banned in some states and countries. Matt Sundeen, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said 13 countries have enacted some form of ban on driving while cell-phoning. He said 24 states are considering bills related to cell phones this year.
Part of the reason cell phone use while driving isn’t more widely regulated is because officials cannot prove it is any more distracting than other hazards.
“I saw a lot of people driving down the road reading newspapers, taking curlers out of their hair, putting mascara on, shaving with electric shavers,” West said of the decade he worked the highways in Oklahoma City.
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association cites a 1995 survey of Hawaii law enforcement officials that found “cellular telephones were seen as less hazardous than common nontechnologically related distractions such as noisy children, unrestrained pets and smoking while at the wheel.”
The industry also touts the life-saving value of cell phones. Nearly 98,000 calls a day are made to 911 or other emergency numbers from wireless phones.