Zero Tolerance for Cell Phones

Science, technology, and life.
May 11 2009 7:45 AM

Zero Tolerance for Cell Phones

Should possession of a switched-on cell phone while driving be illegal?

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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.

A trolley crash in Boston on Friday night is raising that question. First there was last year's train crash near Los Angeles , with 25 dead and 130 injured. In three hours of work before the crash, the engineer received 28 text messages and sent 29 more . He sent his last message 22 seconds before impact, just after passing a signal that would have alerted him to the disaster ahead.

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Now comes the Boston crash, in which one trolley went through a red light and rear-ended another. Forty-nine people were injured—none of them gravely, but "more than a few were bloodied," according to the Globe . Officials say the operator of the second trolley "was text-messaging his girlfriend" and "was looking down at his phone and could not apply the brakes quickly enough when he looked up and saw the trolley in front of him."

If texting can cause crashes on train tracks, which prevent lateral drift, think how much more dangerous it is to text while driving a car. Only 10 states outlaw this practice, but I suspect that's largely a matter of legislators being slow to catch up with evolving technology. You can't drive while looking down and typing a message.

How about holding a phone and talking instead of typing? That way, your eyes can stay on the road. But your hand is still occupied with the phone, and you might be distracted by punching in somebody's number. Hence the push in many states to restrict cell-phone use to hands-free operation.

Still, that leaves your brain occupied by the phone conversation. And this arrangement isn't safe, either . That's why the National Safety Council wants a nationwide ban on using , not just holding, your phone while driving.

Boston's transit authority already forbids cell phone use by train and trolley operators. (Such phones aren't needed for job-related communication, since the trains have radios and emergency call buttons.) But it has let them carry their phones, and over the last three years, some four dozen train operators and bus drivers have been cited for using their phones on the job. The carry-but-don't-use policy hasn't worked.

On the heels of Friday's crash, the transit authority has announced the next logical step. It will "ban on-the-job possession of cell phones" by train operators and "fire anyone caught carrying a phone, pager, or similar device," the Globe reports. The authority's general manager puts it this way:

Leave it at home. Leave it in your car. Leave it with a friend. Leave it in a locker. But you are not to get on board that bus or [train or trolley] and have a cell phone on your person or in the cab. Period. This is going to be a zero-tolerance policy.

Massachusetts' transportation secretary thinks other states will adopt the same policy for transit operators. I bet he's right. States can justify and enforce such a policy because transit operators are on the clock working for the government.

Could they enforce a similar policy against you while you're driving your car? A law against having a cell phone in the seat next to you? I doubt it. But the logical progression is worth thinking about. First, ban texting at the wheel, because driving requires your eyes. Second, ban holding a phone, because driving requires your hands. Third, ban talking on a phone, because driving requires your brain. And fourth, if everybody's violating the ban on phone use and accidents are killing people as a result, then do what we do with alcohol: Adopt the equivalent of an open-container law for cell phones.

Open-container laws, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration , "prohibit the possession of any open alcoholic beverage container ... in the passenger area of any motor vehicle that is located on a public highway or right-of-way." The equivalent in this case would be a powered-up cell phone. If phone use while driving really is as dangerous as being drunk at the wheel—which is what preliminary evidence suggests —would you oppose such a law?

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