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A START Requiring hands-free phones safer, but further steps needed

Chicago Sun-Times

The Sun's editorial writer is out of the office this week. The following editorial is republished from the Dec. 29 Chicago Sun-Times.

It's a start.

Beginning Wednesday, it will be illegal in Illinois to press your cellphone to your ear while driving.

A new state law says cellphones can be used only if they're in hands-free or voice-activated mode or if used with a headset.

A start, we say, because this gets Illinois only part of the way in attacking the deadly problem of distracted driving.

If the goal truly is to cut down on the accidents that result from DWY - driving while yakking - the real answer lies in banning cellphones of any kind while driving. Pull over if you have to make or take a call.

A radical idea, we know.

The arguments against such a ban are many. Cell calls are where life's details are worked out, business completed and emergencies reported (that last one will still be allowed under the new law).

But we're talking about saving lives here.

As we've said several times over the last few years, phone conversations and driving just don't mix. Whether you are talking on a hand-held cellphone or talking on a hands-free device, you are almost sure to suffer "inattention blindness" and quadruple your chances of getting into an accident.

That's the powerful science behind a 2011 recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that all states enact a complete ban on the use of cellphones by motorists.

All cellphone conversations significantly reduce our awareness while driving, unlike a conversation with somebody sitting in the passenger seat. The passenger, research shows, acts as a second set of eyes during a conversation in a way a person on the other end of a cellphone simply can't.

Hand-held bans appear to help somewhat. The University of California, Berkeley found that overall traffic deaths dropped 22 percent in the two years after its 2008 ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving. Deaths blamed on driving using hand-held phones were down 47 percent.

But far more lives could be saved if cellphones had no place in our moving cars.

Other distractions cause accidents, of course. Fingernail painting, eating, yelling at the kids. None of that is about to change. But cellphones are something society can, without unreasonable overreach, do something about. Driving is a legal privilege, not a God-given right, and society has a responsiblity to keep its roads safe for all.

The hand-held ban enjoys wide public support. A June survey found that 85 percent of registered voters in Illinois favor the prohibition. And a related law may bolster its effectiveness.

Starting Jan. 1, drivers who are on their cellphones illegally could be subjected to prison time if they're involved in accidents that either injure or kill people.

These two laws are a start and important ones at that, assuming law enforcement can find the will and the time to enforce them.

But creating a safer Illinois requires a complete ban, inconvenient as that would be for all of us.

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