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People are dying because legislators refuse to separate cell-phone use and driving

In 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, alarmed by data that showed a skyrocketing number of traffic collisions resulting in injuries and fatalities caused by people talking on cell phones while driving, wanted to do a comprehensive study on just how bad the problem was, and how it could be creating a culture of wanton recklessness on the nation's roads and highways.

The proposed study was never undertaken, for fear of angering those many members of Congress who were so deep in the back pockets of the cell-phone lobbyists that if the lawmaker sneezed, the lobbyist would get a mini-enema.

The original NHTSA data, which was suppressed by the Bush administration and then obviously ignored by the Obama people until being forced into the public arena by a Freedom of Information Act request, estimates that in 2002, there were 240,000 cell-phone-related crashes, resulting in nearly 1,000 deaths. And the really horrifying thing is that 2002 was the good old days, when complaints about people talking on the phone while driving were met with, "Well, at least nobody's stupid enough to text while driving."

Arizona State Sen. Al Melvin (a Republican from District 26) introduced a bill (Senate Bill 1443) this past session that would have made it illegal to text while driving. I have a vivid imagination, but I swear I can't think of one reason why anybody with even the slightest lick of sense would oppose a law banning this incredibly dangerous practice. And yet, Tucson Democrat Paula Aboud did. I tried to contact her to ask her why, but she never got back to me. She was one of 16 (!) state senators who apparently think it is just fine to be operating a 2,000-pound vehicle with no hands on the steering wheel and no eyes on the road.

Oh, a couple of senators have made public statements to the effect of, "There are already laws on the books against distracted driving." You know that they paused from Lewinsky-ing the cell-phone lobbyist just long enough to read that sentence from an index card that they carry with them at all times.

Melvin says that even Verizon supported his bill. (They probably see 10-figure-lawsuit payouts off in the distance.) But the rest of the lobby is incredibly tone-deaf.

Meanwhile, prisoners all over the country have been using smuggled-in cell phones to conduct criminal activities, including gang-style murders of witnesses. Prisons have asked the government to allow them to use technology to jam cell-phone signals from within the prison walls, but the wireless industry is frantically lobbying against such measures. I guess those gangsta minutes make the difference between profit and loss for these providers.

On the street, cops aren't going to pop somebody for texting unless their superiors (and the law) tell them to. And, secondly, the term "distracted driving" purports to target all sorts of transgressions, large and small, when, if fact, it is so broad that it effectively targets none. Changing the radio station is not the same as having a 10-minute phone conversation. Taking a bite of a hamburger is not the same as reading a text message and then responding to it. Trying to explain away your own selfish and destructive behavior by pointing the finger at somebody else is the response of an 8-year-old and shouldn't be the action of someone who was elected to work in the interest (and for the safety) of all Arizonans.

(The feds are talking about withholding much-needed highway funds from states that don't have laws against texting while driving. Sadly, only 14 states currently do.)

The results of recent studies are beyond frightening. Having a phone conversation while driving (even on a hands-free phone!) has a distraction factor equivalent to the driver being legally drunk. Someone talking on the phone is four times as likely to crash as someone who is just driving—and someone who is texting is 23 times as likely to do so!

This never should have become a problem. The law should have come down hard the very first time some selfish ass decided to combine two activities, each of which is far too attention-intensive to be combined with the other. A responsible society—not an autocratic one, as some people whine, or a totalitarian one, but a responsible one, something to which we should all aspire—should have nipped that narcissistic and deadly practice in the bud. In doing so, an entire generation of young people would have been taught the valuable lesson that their petty whims are never more important than the safety concerns of those around them.

I don't entirely blame young people for texting while driving. Instead, I blame those people (parents, law enforcement, legislators, industry members) whose responsibility it was to tell and/or force them not to do so. It would have been a lot easier to have prevented this from becoming part of the culture than it will be to bring it to a halt.

It took America decades (and hundreds of thousands of needless deaths) to start treating drunk driving like the serious crime that it is. Let's hope we're a bit quicker in this situation.

How many more have to die just so Missy or Dickhead can find out wussup whenever they feel like it?

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