Politics over Safety

By Representative Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie). She is author of HB 2377, signed into law, which bans the use of hand-held cell phones while driving in the state of Oregon.

If you’ve been reading the newspaper lately you’ve probably seen at least one article on the topic of cell phone use while driving. Here in Oregon, we recently passed a law that prohibits the practice – legislation I wrote and championed. The law is based on a simple premise: Using a hand-held cell phone while driving is extremely dangerous.

While the basis of the bill is not difficult to articulate, passing the bill was a challenge. When you read some of the recent newspaper articles on the subject it is easy to see why.

The New York Times reports that under the Bush Administration, federal officials withheld data on the risks of distracted driving because of political reasons. Specifically, the report says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was leery of angering members of Congress who had urged the agency not to lobby state governments on the issue.

Researchers at the agency had wanted to undertake a far-ranging study of the dangers of distracted driving, but the study never happened, and the agency did not make public warnings of the dangers of cell phone use while driving.

Fortunately, those documents are now public because of Freedom of Information Act requests. While that is a positive development, it is not enough. The study should move forward.

My hope is that the NTSA and Congress can put politics aside and move forward with the important task of studying how to make our roads safer. But if they cannot, I am prepared to introduce a resolution in the Oregon Legislature asking them to complete the study. Pressure from outside the federal government might, just might, do something to counteract the pressure coming from within the federal government. This issue is simply too important to do nothing.

Comments

  • Terry Cantrell (unverified)
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    Talking on a hands-free phone is no more distracting that talking to the person sitting next to you, or driving with children, or eating in the car, or driving with loud music.

    Safety isn't the real issue here, or Ms. Tomei's bill would ban multi-passenger vehicles, children, drive through restaurants, and CD players. The issue is whether Legislators like Ms. Tomei should use police force to coerce behavior which may (or may not) hold down insurance claims, and drive up profits for that industry.

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    Thanks, Rep. Tomei, I do think hand-held cellphone use while driving is dangerous and, therefore, a safety issue. Thanks for the Oregon law. Please continue your efforts to have the federal study complete. Some commenters like Terry may need further convincing.

    Terry, yes, all the actions you list can be distractions and can pose safety issues. However, as I see it, they are usually not problems, so we leave dealing with them to the discretion of the driver. Yes, some eater-drivers cross the safety line. And, yes, the behavior of some children can be dangerously distracting (pull over and deal with, please). But, IMHO, almost all hand held cellphone use by a driver is dangerous. It could be me they hit.

  • michael riemer (unverified)
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    i do not believe that legislation and big brother solutions are going to solve this problem...we live in a very hyperconnected society of which cell phones are an integral part...check out http://www.zoomsafer.com - a new solution to the problem of distracted driving that keeps users focused on the road but still conencted to friends, family and social networks.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    The data don't show what is repeatedly asserted. Reality says that in-car distractions are distracting but they are simply not equivalent to cell phones.

    Cell phones put the driver into engagement with someone not in the car, someone who can't see what traffic conditions are like, etc. Someone who can't adjust the tempo of conversation when conditions get worse; someone who can't help the driver look in the blind spot; etc.

    People love to conjure up the horrible government jackboots trampling over GPS systems, multi-passenger cars, carrying kids, food in cars etc. Except that we've had all those things (except GPS) since the onset of driving. And none of them cause the level of impairment that people assert on a mass level.

    What changed -- and what has caused a lot of death and maiming -- is cell phones. It wasn't long before people began noticing that something changed in accident statistics -- changed a lot. It was cell phones. It's not legislators who are inventing a problem, it's reality that's caused the problem, and the problem is that we are social beings and we have an extremely difficult time failing to hold up our end of the conversation with a person not in the car.

    Humans are smart monkeys, but we're monkeys still -- and we operate at the limit of our mental capacity when we're piloting a vehicle. Add a cell phone to the mix and we learn, through deaths and horrible maimings, that "multi-tasking" is a fiction. Humans don't multi-task, our brains simply don't do it. (See "Brain Rules," an excellent book).

    Thus, cell phones, unlike GPS, kids, food, radios, etc. are PROVEN repeatedly to cause driver impairment similar to alcohol at 0.8 - 0.1 level. That's the reality. It has no political content at all.

    What does have a political content is what people do then, which is very similar to the climate change debate: they deny physical reality because they don't want to make the changes that accepting the physical reality would requires: since we prohibit impaired driving, we should prohibit ALL cellphone conversations in cars.

    And the telecom lobby is powerful, as we see with this bill, which was watered down from the start and would be rendered useless within days of any serious enforcement effort. (The consequence will be to increase telecom industry profits as people buy cellphones AND bluetooth systems.)

    The bottom line is that people who drive and talk on cell phones are willing to kill you and themselves for their convenience and narcissism.

    What we need is a techno-fix similar to airbags --- something that senses whenever the driver is using a telecom device (voice or text, handheld or hands-free) and warns other drivers (turns on the flashers or something). Because the egos of the people involved mean that, like drinkers who think they're good drivers when they've had a few, cell phone users are willing to kill to maintain their ego gratification.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Terry Cantrell:

    Talking on a hands-free phone is no more distracting that talking to the person sitting next to you, or driving with children, or eating in the car, or driving with loud music.

    Bob T:

    Oh yes it is -- much more.

    George Seldes:

    Reality says that in-car distractions are distracting but they are simply not equivalent to cell phones.

    Bob T:

    That's correct -- the difference is huge, in fact.

    George Seldes:

    Cell phones put the driver into engagement with someone not in the car, someone who can't see what traffic conditions are like, etc. Someone who can't adjust the tempo of conversation when conditions get worse; someone who can't help the driver look in the blind spot; etc.

    Bob T:

    Well, no, the problem isn't that person at the other end cannot be an extra set of eyes for the driver, or can know when the hold for a minute.

    The problem is that the driver is engaged with someone who is not present and part of his mind leaves the vehicle. I've noticed similar behaviour in land-line phone users for decades, and even with myself. Have you ever tried to get the attention of someone on the phone (particularly if they are really into the call)? You wave your hand in front of them, etc, and they aren't as aware of you than if they were sitting there talking with someone else in the room. Sure, you can putter around while on the phone, do housework, look for something etc, but that all depends on the situation for specific moments in any call. If you're on the phone behind the wheel you may be looking through the windshield but you're really not fully focused on what's there. Your eyes are open and looking forward, but there's an inability to register what's out there in the same speed if looking while not on the phone. All it takes is that quarter-second delay to apply the brakes, or turn a bit, and there's your accident.

    I started noticing this with cell-phone using drivers once these items became common enough. I've almost hit a few of them because they were pulling out into traffic across the opposite lanes, trying to aim for the center lane if one is there, and their handling of their cars is poor as well as is their awareness of the proximity of my own vehicle. They were too wrapped up in the calls. I was behind one jackass who stopped at a stop sign and never moved again, and since his big pickup blocked my view I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he saw something I couldn't, so I hesitated to go around him. After 30 seconds I started to anyway, and then noticed that he was on the phone and he never seemed to notice he was holding up anyone, even after I passed. He was in la-la land.

    I disagree with those who think that the distraction is the same if you're talking with someone else in the vehicle. Not so. As a passenger and a driver, I've never noticed a decreased ability in the driver to pay attention to what drivers need to pay attention to even while engaged in chatter with a passenger. There's no reason for your mind to wander halfway to where the other person is because you're right there.

    I also disagree with those who think the problem is that it involves having only one hand on the wheel. A hands-free phone is still a problem because the driver's mind is going to be a mile away. Like I said, all it takes is a split second delay in realizing that you have to hit the brakes or swerve, and there's your accident.

    One of the city councilors in Tigard or Tualatin, several years back, understood this when they considered passing a law on this. To treat this as a two-hands issue will only lead to doing stupid things like banning holding a hamburger while driving, or sipping coffee etc. Very misleading. The problem is the mind, not the hands.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • Brian Collins (unverified)
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    One of the most important parts of the NHTSA report that was suppressed is that they surveyed the literature and found no evidence that hands free use of cell phones in cars is any safer than regular use of cell phones while driving.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    While you're on the law-making binge, lets not forget open drinks in the car. How many accidents ahve happedned due to spills! If it is only one, then don't we need yet another law?

    When you get to the point where Oregon is running halway efficiently, then start chasing stuff like this down.

  • Rulial (unverified)
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    I like what Tom Vanderbilt wrote about this issue:

    In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a law banning such activities — rather, they would be simply common-sense measures taken by the operators of heavy industrial machinery (which, despite the marketing messages that car companies put out, is what driving is). As the late visionary Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman put it to me a few years back, “There are so many things that can be forbidden. The stranger thing is that we believe everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed.”
    It's possible we will someday outlaw talking on a cellphone while driving. But given evidence that this practice is as dangerous as drinking and driving, we shouldn't wait for a law. Each of us has a moral responsibility to:
    • Commit to not talking on the phone while driving.
    • Educate others about the risks of phoning while driving.
    • Refuse to ride with people who talk on the phone while driving (much like we'd refuse to ride in a car driven by a drunk person).
    • Insist that people not talk to us on the phone if on they are on road.
    I'm not saying a law shouldn't be passed, but we should have some personal responsibility, too.

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    This isn't a case a big brother. Requiring adults to buckle up or wear a motorcycle helmet has never been justified in my view because the "victim" is the person making the choice to ignore safety; those are clear cases of government patronizing its citizens. But in the case of phones, as with drinking, you are endangering others and that makes it a legitimate behavior to legislate.

    Hands-free phones may make us marginally safer, but as pointed out above the studies show that talking on ANY phone is the real problem. No one really needs to talk on a phone in their car, we got along just find without them until fairly recently. Also, whatever your opinion on this, I'm betting everyone reading this can recount countless examples of being hit or nearly so by someone on a phone. Pedestrian deaths are also not insignificant.

    The same studies that show the dangers of cell phones and drinking, also show the leading cause of death in cars is from good old fashioned speed. Just as when we make the choice to drive faster or raise speed limits, when we decide as a society to let people use cell phones while driving we are saying that we accept convenience as a trade-off for a higher number of accidents and deaths. If we want to make that trade, then at least admit it's what we're doing.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Rulial:

    Each of us has a moral responsibility to:

    * Commit to not talking on the phone while driving.
    * Educate others about the risks of phoning while driving.
    * Refuse to ride with people who talk on the phone while driving (much like we'd refuse to ride in a car driven by a drunk person).
    * Insist that people not talk to us on the phone if on they are on road.
    

    Bob T:

    Good list. I have a cell phone but keep it turned off and use it for emergencies such as if I break down, or if I need to call and find out why the person I was supposed to meet has not appeared. With the phone off while I'm driving, I will not get any calls. If I need to call while on the road I will pull over but this hasn't been necessary yet.

    While watching a film at a stadium-seat theater, a kid just below me to the right kept flipping his phone open to see who was calling him (vibrator was on), and it was bright like a flashlight. After the third time I kicked the back of his seat and he didn't do it again and never looked back at me. I don't know what it is with all these people who are now conditioned to think that they need to hear from people right now.

    I can make a good guess, based on what I hear cell-phone users are saying when I pass them in stores or sidewalks, that over 90% of these "while driving" conversations are total bullshit that can wait.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    "Requiring adults to buckle up or wear a motorcycle helmet has never been justified in my view because the "victim" is the person making the choice to ignore safety; those are clear cases of government patronizing its citizens."

    This overlooks the cost to the community if the "victim" has to be picked up off the road and treated by EMTs, driven by ambulance to a hospital, and treated expensively in an emergency room and an intensive care unit.

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    A few years ago I worked professionally with a woman in a nursing home who had been a productive person, running her own business, in her mid fifties, until some idiot in Gresham ran a stop sign while talking on his cell phone.

    She set a new record for being unconscious in critical care at OHSU, 5 months I believe. She eventually was transferred to a nursing home where she will spend the rest of her shortened life. Her capacity to breathe had been severely diminished, so she required oxygen. She was unable to walk and had chronic pain in her extremities because of deterioration of her nerves and peripheral neuropathy. She had chronic anxiety because of the breathing difficulty, and chronic depression because of the profundity of trauma and loss she has experienced.

    She required nursing care assistance with all her activities of daily living, toiletting, eating, transfers, etc. The guy who hit her never apologized. Wasn't arrested, and his insurance company ended up paying out his max and the state of Oregon, and the federal govt., will give her care for the remainder of her days, paid for by you and me, on medicaid. How many of you who insist on your "rights" to talk on cell phones while driving want to really inflict that kind of tragedy and suffering on another human being??

  • mp97303 (unverified)
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    I can use my left hand to hold lunch, my right hand to hold my drink and scream at Lars Larson on the radio while steering with my knee with no problem. If I talk on a cell phone, before I know it, I don't remember the last mile I drove.

  • mp97303 (unverified)
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    I was sitting at a red light with a car STOPPED behind me. Next thing I know, the car has run into me. The drivers reason, he was talking on the phone and forgot to keep his foot on the brake. His words.

  • Brian Collins (unverified)
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    Wow Bill, that is a devastating story. I hope that you will share it with your State Representative and Senator.

  • GWeiss (unverified)
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    I use the way humans process data and stimulai in my job and can tell you it is proven beyond doubt that the human brain cannot simultaneously process audio and visual data. It has to switch between the two pathways.

    Cell phone use, with or without hands, takes the driver's mind away from the visual road environment and into the audio data processing pathway--leaving the driver unaware of the road. The problem with cell phones isn't solved by making hands free, its solved by re-wiring the way people process data--or eliminating cell phones while driving.

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    As a reminder, speeding is the number one contributor to crashes in Oregon. Half of all crashes are related to speeding.

    Why's this? In large part, road engineers overengineer roads, making it easier to speed, and humans then adjust to what seems safe. We need roads designed to convince drivers to drive more slowly - narrower sightlines, less signage, etc. Once we're not overdirected, we engage mentally with the roads and watch what's happening and what we should do. Some call it naked streets.

  • AmandaN (unverified)
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    So Rep Tomei let's get this straight, you vote for repealing a safety concern that the voters actually care about (repealing Measure 57 on HB 3508) and make this traffic ticket which would be the equivalent of not using your blinker as your primary public safety concern? No wonder voters have trouble trusting us on public safety.

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    @ Jamais Vu - . "Requiring adults to buckle up or wear a motorcycle helmet has never been justified in my view because the "victim" is the person making the choice to ignore safety; those are clear cases of government patronizing its citizens."

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    I have seen a few of your motorcycle guys who were too macho to wear a helmet on psychiatric wards where they were being contained for aggressive and psychotic behavior because their brains are scrambled from an accident. They and their families are the first to demand disability and hospitalization benefits, which you and I pay for. Don't tell me they are the only victims of their irresponsibility. And if you don't think your health and auto insurance aren't affected by these idiots, think again!

  • Steve (unverified)
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    "How many of you who insist on your "rights" to talk on cell phones while driving want to really inflict that kind of tragedy and suffering on another human being??"

    FIne, then let's write up rules banning teenagers driving, mothers fighting with their kids in the car, makeup applicators, newspaper readers, etc.

    The point about not being able to legislate morality is fair. No one sohould engage in any activity while driving that be reckless. However, we have rules against reckless driving already.

    THe bonus on this is that it punishes the 98% that act responsibily while using a phone and driving. Again, way too many laws trying to mandate common sense.

    If Ms TOmei can pass a law forbidding people from acting nonsensically while driving, great. Otherwise, she should be more productive with her time.

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    A couple people above pointed out that the reason the government (and by extension, voters) require others to wear helmets, seat belts and so on is because society as a whole believes the cost of injuries outweighs the right to personal choice. The same economic arguments could be used to criminalize fatty foods, extramarital sex and earbuds; all of which can lead the user to using public money to sustain life (or hearing.)

    With cell phones, we, at least collectively, have reached the opposite conclusion--deciding that convenience for ourselves is more important than the safety of those around us. That's what it comes down to. The data is pretty unequivocal that cell phones cause accidents and deaths. Arguments not to ban cell phone use by drivers come down to saying we think convenience is the more important value.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    "The data is pretty unequivocal that cell phones cause accidents and deaths."

    Fine, what % of cell phone usage causes accidents? 1% or 0.00001%. Again, its pretty convenient to let teenagers drive, or allow people to read papers, put on make up or fight with kids in the car. Why not make a law for these also?

    I think you are punishing a huge majority for a few reckless types. This is diff from seatbelts/helmets - If you get in an accident without a seatbelt/helmet the mortality rates are way higher than with.

    Moreover, no matter what law Ms Tomei thinks of, they still be reckless.

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    Steve, Here's what the article says:

    "Highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002."

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

    "In 2002, an estimated 42,850 people died on the nation's highways, up from 42,116 in 2001."

    955 out of 42,850 is about 2% of all traffic deaths, deaths linked to cell phones.

    The study Tomei refers to was done in 2003. Assuming a steady (and not increasing) rate of traffic deaths each year due to cell phones, we can reasonably assume from 2004 - 2009 (6 years) that nearly 6,000 people died as a result of drivers feeling the need to chat on their phones while driving. That's 6,000 people who might have had a chance to be alive if this data weren't suppressed. (That's more than the total deaths of U.S. combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period combined.)

    If we think that's a small price to pay for convenience, then by all means blab away.

    (For the record, I agree with you--I wish police were more aggressive in pulling people over for bad driving for any reason. In PDX they don't even ticket you for causing a crash unless you kill someone.)

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    @ Jamais Vu- "The same economic arguments could be used to criminalize fatty foods, extramarital sex and earbuds; all of which can lead the user to using public money to sustain life (or hearing.)"

    <hr/>

    Utterly spurious and false argument, and absurd comparisons. We're talking about public roadways which are subject to appropriate regulation. Many of these same idiots as parents expose their children to risk by not putting them in seat belts. Or if they do, seem all too happy leave their children orphaned and dependents of the state. If they want their "right" to not use helmets or safety belts, then perhaps they should sign a statement demanding euthanization from the EMTs and police officers who have to scrape their brains off the windshields and concrete. I don't see anything in the Constitution of the United States of America about the freedom to be reckless and irresponsible on public roads.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Evan Manvel:

    As a reminder, speeding is the number one contributor to crashes in Oregon. Half of all crashes are related to speeding.

    Why's this? In large part, road engineers overengineer roads, making it easier to speed

    Bob T:

    Speeding is overrated. Lane-changing or weaving is far more dangerous because drivers engaging in this (they usually do it as a habit) are constantly forcing other drivers to quickly react to the suddenly reduced distance between their vehicles and the jerk who suddenly popped in front often with not much space to spare. The reaction can easily be an over-reaction, and this also causes a need for a quick reaction by drivers behind the one reacting. (These are the kinds of necessary reactions that a cell-phone user will likely fail to make because his mind is out in la-la land).

    Exceeding the speed limit (which is what you seem to be pointing at) implies the driver will encounter many who are driving at or below the limit. This is where weaving comes in.

    When I'm on any highway or expressway I keep an eye out for the weavers because I've seen what they can do (often they cause an accident while they drive on).

    Bob Tiernan Portland

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    Many of these same idiots as parents expose their children to risk by not putting them in seat belts.

    Talk about an "Utterly spurious and false argument, and absurd comparisons." Couldn't have said it better.

  • Pat Ryan (unverified)
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    If they want their "right" to not use helmets or safety belts, then perhaps they should sign a statement demanding euthanization from the EMTs and police officers who have to scrape their brains off the windshields and concrete.

    Yup. Bill R. is the voice of reason and sanity opposing the "idiots" who fail to see things his way.

    The fact is Bill, that unlike myself and (probably) jamais vu, you have acquired zero statistical evidence for your POV. In fact, you apparently seew no need to do so as Common Sense, yadda, yadda................

    Just like people that you are quick to deride in other circumstances, you think that your anecdotal experiences should be enough for us troglodytes.

    <hr/>

    With cell phones, we are seeing actual evidence that has never been provided by the mandatory helmet crew, (of which, BTW, Rep. Tomei is also card carrying a member).

    Do you see the difference? If there is hard evidence that a certain behavior or habit is actually endangering the rest of the Commons significantly, then legislation is in order. Other than that, politicians would be well advised to avoid imposing additional irritants on the general public.

  • Ms Mel Harmon (unverified)
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    I'm in favor of the legislation. Two things that I recalled as I read through the comments:

    1. The craziest thing I ever saw regarding a distracted driver was a motorcyclist who had one of those large wind/bug shields on his bike. He had a newspaper propped up on it and was reading it while glancing over the top while driving on a 40mph road...and he was drinking from his coffee mug. In a car, this would've been scary enough, but a bike?

    2. My insurance agent recently told me that people with kids under the age of seven got a decrease in rates, but as soon as the oldest kid hit seven, the rats went back up. He swore they had studies that showed that kids under seven were less of a distraction, thus the discount; however, those like me with NO kids in the car didn't qualify for the lower rate, which made no sense to me.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    “If we think that's a small price to pay for convenience, then by all means blab away.”

    If you read a little further in the report, there were 7722 death due to drivers under 20 (or about 18% or 10x the number of claimed cell phone deaths). If Tomei’s big concern is safety, why isn’t she raising the legal driving age to 21?

    I don’t have a problem with making driving safer, I have an issue with Ms Tomei having a pet peeve against cell phone users.

    If you look at the number of cell phone users in cars, the total number of accidents is a very small %. I am not saying that they don’t cause accidents, but rules like this get turned into revenue generation schemes.

    Instead, police should be enforcing reckless driving laws actively – whether the person is using a cell phone, turning around to scream at their kids, applying makeup or reading the paper in the car.

    BTW – If blab means anyone who disagrees with you, I plead guilty. I am trying to be factual and use your numbers.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Gee, Steve, if we were to follow your "logic" she should have proposed banning driving by persons over 20 since they are involved in 80% of the accidents.

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