I think it's safe to call that excessive Featured

10:10am EDT July 22, 2002

I think it's safe to call that excessive

By Nancy Byron

My co-workers put on the pressure, but I was insistent: This cellular phone thing just wasn't for me. I didn't need one. I wouldn't use one. Nevertheless, our company issued me a slick black mobile phone with all the attachments last winter. The box sat in my bottom desk drawer for months.

Then it happened. I got horribly lost on my way to an out-of-town editors' meeting. After driving around the shadier parts of Cleveland for nearly an hour in the dark, I began to reconsider my staunch opposition to mobile technology. Maybe I could use a phone in my car.

I unboxed my cell phone the next day.

Now I'm hooked. I check messages and return phone calls en route to downtown meetings. I leave myself voicemails about story ideas that pop into my head as I drive through vibrant business districts. I call the office to say I'm running late, but haven't forgotten my 3 p.m. appointment who should be arriving any moment. For someone so hellbent against trying this technology, I'm amazed at how much I use it. I've never felt so efficient.

Some state lawmakers don't see it that way. Rep. Jack Ford (D-Toledo) wants to ban the use of mobile phones while driving. Although his House Bill 627 may be on a road to nowhere-it was introduced in November and has yet to get a committee hearing-it's an idea that could senselessly crush productivity if its backers manage to refuel the issue this fall.

I understand the safety concerns associated with cellular phones and driving. I'll admit there were times early on in my cell phone experience when I made calls in situations that could have been dangerous-merging onto busy highways, navigating through traffic at rush hour, turning corners while I downshift.

But experience has taught me to keep my cell phone off and my attention fully on the road in such circumstances. I wait until I'm safely cruising on the open highway before I dial the first number. Under these self-imposed guidelines, using a cell phone becomes no more distracting than talking to a passenger as I travel. I'm not scheduling appointments as I propel myself down the highway at 65 mph.

In fact, using a cell phone to leave myself verbal notes on voicemail is actually safer than my previous habit of holding the steering wheel with one hand while I precariously scrawled story ideas on a notepad in the seat next to me. I'm glad to be done with that admittedly dangerous practice.

Banning the use of cell phones for all drivers is an overreaction. What about those who use such phones to report traffic accidents? What about those who travel alone and rely on having a cellular phone at their disposal in emergency situations? What about those who conduct business on the road, but can discipline themselves to hang up in heavy traffic or hazardous road conditions? These people shouldn't be penalized. It's the drivers who can't act responsibly or who demonstrate reckless disregard for the safety of others who ought to have their cellular phone use regulated. That can be accomplished without an all-out ban. Instead, let's:

  • Create a more serious offense-with stiffer penalties-for driving recklessly while using a cellular phone. I know I can spot these people from 10 car-lengths away. Certainly Columbus' finest can do likewise-and deter them from continuing their dangerous ways.

  • Require the owners of manual-transmission cars to display a special sticker restricting cellular phone usage to highways where shifting gears is not necessary. I drive a five-speed and know how difficult it is to balance a cell phone on my shoulder so I can steer and shift at the same time. It requires a third hand or a hands-free feature-neither of which I possess.

  • If statistics bear out the idea that youths are more prone to auto accidents when using cellular phones, prohibit drivers under age 18 from using them.

  • Consider launching a public service campaign to encourage drivers to use the hands-free feature that comes on some car phones and to exercise extreme caution when using a handheld phone in transit.

This is a common-sense issue; it calls for a common-sense response. Don't penalize the many for the sins of the few. Educate the few about how to make their cell phone use less hazardous so we can all get down to business safely on the road.

Nancy Byron, editor of Small Business News Columbus, can be reached by phone at 848-6397, by fax at 842-6093, or by e-mail at sbnpubco@psinet.com.