Road Worrier

Phone-free driving law wouldn't be popular

Staff WriterDecember 20, 2011 

When Raleigh police Lt. Tim Tomczak heard I wanted to chat about cellphones and distracted driving, he almost missed his exit.

He fessed up right away when he called me back.

Tomczak oversees traffic enforcement and crash reconstruction in Raleigh. He sees what can happen when a phone conversation drags the driver's focus away from the driving.

He limits his own calls sharply, but he acknowledged it can be hard to ignore the phone. Driving to Indiana for a family funeral last week, he was looking for a gas station when he took the call from Jim Sughrue, the department spokesman.

"It's a convenience thing," said Tomczak, 38, a 14-year Raleigh police veteran. "I could have pulled over or called back later. And if the law changes, that's what I'll do."

That's what the National Transportation Safety Board had in mind last week when it called for a 50-state ban on the use of phones and other "personal electronic devices" while driving.

The sweeping recommendation came after the investigation of a 2010 chain-reaction crash in Missouri, in which two people died and 38 more were hurt. It started with a driver who was distracted by an ongoing text-message conversation.

The NTSB cited deadly accidents that have been blamed on phone-impaired drivers of trains, boats, trucks and buses, and a new estimate that 3,092 Americans died last year in crashes affected by phone use and other distractions.

It can be hard to determine whether a driver was on the phone before a crash, but Tomczak has investigated several accidents where that clearly was the case. The dangers are the same, he said, whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free.

He was calling from the passenger seat of the car, with his wife at the wheel.

"It's not the act of holding the phone in your hand," Tomczak said. "The distracting part is having your attention split between two tasks that both use the same part of your brain. You're thinking about a conversation, and you're also trying to interpret what's on the road in front of you and beside you."

The NTSB, which is empowered only to make recommendations, is pushing for more far-reaching restrictions than any state has been willing to adopt so far. Handhelds are illegal for drivers in nine states, and texting at the wheel is outlawed in 35 states including North Carolina.

The call for a nationwide ban comes as automakers are turning the car itself into a personal electronic device.

General Motors said Monday that its OnStar system will team up with Verizon "to focus on the in-vehicle experience related to streaming content sharing for all vehicle occupants," including video chat and other features. Other manufacturers offer or promise the ability to update Facebook pages, consult phone directories and choose entertainment options.

Mike J. Fox told me he is careful when he uses his hands-free phone on the daily drive between home in southern Chatham County and work in Research Triangle Park. Fox was driving on a rural Cary road when he called me Monday morning. He said he doesn't use the phone when he's in the thick of things on Interstate 40.

Fox said he could accept a ban on hand-held phones, but he predicted that a push for greater restrictions would meet stiff opposition from busy drivers and competitive automakers.

He is managing a construction project as a volunteer for a nonprofit group. He deals with busy contractors who will be hard to reach later if he doesn't take their call right away.

"I'd rather they call me when I'm in the office or at home," said Fox, 46. "But when they call me and I'm on the road, I'd better take that call if I want to get things done."

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