Look, Ma, No Head

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 13 2009 7:51 AM

Look, Ma, No Head

Hey, cell-phone zombie! Wake up! The National Safety Council is trying to pull you over.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The council, a congressionally chartered nonprofit that helped lead the fight for seat-belt use , wants a nationwide ban on cell-phone use while driving. Not just a ban on holding your phone. A ban on using it.

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It's about time. Three months ago, Human Nature looked up the research on cell-phone use at the wheel. It's brutal . Even with a hands-free device, talking on a phone can impair driving skills more than intoxication does . Brain scans show the phone conversation sucking the driver's mind from one world into another.

Just last week, a lawsuit in the "texting-engineer" train crash near Los Angeles alleged that the engineer's bosses knew about his texting habit but ignored it . This weekend, I was complaining that the company should have taken driving while texting as seriously as we take driving while drunk .

My complaint has been answered. On Monday, the NSC agreed . Council president Janet Froetscher cited the same flaw in hands-free cell-phone laws: "Even if both hands are on the wheel, your head is in the call, and not on your driving." And she drew the same comparison to alcohol: "When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It's time to take the cell phone away."

Can a total ban get through the legislative process, politically? It'll be hard, precisely because, as Froetscher notes, 270 million Americans use cell phones, and 80 percent of them use their phones while driving. But the council has succeeded before, and it will do so again, if it can persuade lawmakers and the public to see cell phones in cars the way we now see liquor. "We have been through this before with seatbelts, with drunk driving," says Froetscher. "We do research. When the research demonstrates that something is very dangerous and we can save lives, we educate the public about it."

The insurance industry agrees that a total cell-phone driving ban "makes sense based on the research." The council has also identified a proven mechanism for nationalizing such a ban: Congress can use its highway-construction legislation to financially reward states that pass no-cell laws. And 16 states have set a potentially useful precedent by banning cell-phone use among drivers with learner's permits , intermediate licenses, or both.

To me, the persuasive analogy is alcohol. Intuitively, cell phones in the car seem more justified and less objectionable than booze does, because booze is stupefying, whereas phones are engaging. But the more the phone engages you in its own world, the more it stupefies you in the one you're navigating. Nobody's saying you can't use your phone or your car. Just not at the same time.