Driving with cell phone is still socially acceptable

Until that changes, drivers will keep on talking and texting.

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Washington is one of the few states that have taken action to reduce traffic accidents caused by texting and other cell-phone use.

Yet a new study seems to indicate Washington isn't doing nearly enough. In fact, the study - financed by the insurance industry - found these laws might actually be making the problems worse.

The study done through the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at crash data from states with texting bans. It found that in three of the states - California, Louisiana, Minnesota - crashes actually increased. In other states the ban did not seem to have an immediate benefit.

Institute spokesman Russ Rader says the increase might be the result of drivers moving their phones down, out of public view, while they text and thus looking away from the road longer.

Rader might be on to something. In Washington, the law bans texting and puts the kibosh on hand-held cell-phone use. However, it's legal to use a Bluetooth headset or hold the phone and put it on speaker mode. Using the hand-held speakerphone option would seem to be as dangerous as holding a cell phone to the ear.

A lot of fumbling and inattention goes along with making cell phone calls (or sending text messages). That's the root of the problem.

And this is why U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood believes this insurance study is misleading. He maintains the bans are important in helping stop deaths from distracted driving, but it is also important that the laws are stringently enforced. That isn't always the case now.

LaHood is certainly right about people not obeying the law. Stand at any intersection in Walla Walla for a minute and watch the cell-phone law being broken over and over.

This will end when drivers believe they are going to be hit with a $124 fine and the public has come to look at distracted driving as unacceptable.

Currently, the threat of a fine is remote and few people care whether their friends, neighbors or coworkers see them driving with a cell phone in hand. Everybody does it, right?

Sadly, too many do.

The fact remains it is dangerous. Walla Walla Police Department Capt. Gary Bainter, who writes the Street Smarts column for the U-B, has cited a study in the journal Human Factors in which researchers concluded that a driver talking on a cell phone is 5.36 times more likely to be involved in a collision than nondistracted drivers. This same study found that talking on the cell phone reduced reaction time by 9 percent and drivers are as impaired as legally drunk drivers.

Perhaps someday distracted driving will be socially unacceptable.

But at this time Washington state's effort to combat the problem, citing those holding cell phones, is about as much as can be done given the political climate.

Individual drivers can - and should - do more. Put the cell phone down and drive.

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