The Colorado Legislature on Wednesday put the final touches on the state's first limitations on cell phone use among drivers. Unlike House Bill 1094's original language, though, the restrictions lawmakers supported were limited primarily to teen drivers and those who send text messages while behind the wheel. Those are reasonable places to focus.
Under the measure, drivers younger than 18 will be prohibited from using a cell phone in any manner - voice or text, hand-held or hands-free - whereas their adult counterparts only will be banned from text messaging and can talk on any variety of phone they choose. While that is a significant departure from the bill's initial language - which would have required all drivers to use hands-free devices while operating their vehicles - it addresses the primary dangers of cell phone use without being unduly burdensome, or as some critics say, paternalistic.
Responsible for more than one-third of deaths among teenagers, traffic accidents are far and away the leading cause of death for that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As such, there is much incentive - and precedent - for legislating prevention strategies. Limits on the age and number of people allowed to accompany teen drivers in their vehicles are now commonplace, as are graduated licensing rules that ease young motorists into their new roles. These measures are designed to reduce the number of distractions that contribute to the increased number of accidents - and fatalities - that teen drivers experience compared to drivers in other age groups. Prohibiting behind-the-wheel cell phone use of any kind among this constituency makes perfect sense for their safety and that of others on the road.
So, too, does focusing on the most distracting cell phone behavior for other demographics. Unlike talking on the phone, text messaging consumes so much attention that there is not enough left to simultaneously drive safely. Requiring both eyes and fingers to perform, texting should not accompany driving for any age group and banning it is absolutely appropriate. Talking on the phone, on the other hand, often can take place safely in concert with other activities, and while it is somewhat of a distraction, it is not necessarily dangerous to the point of requiring intervention on the part of lawmakers.
There are any number of things drivers routinely do while behind the wheel that could - and do - constitute a distraction. Eating, drinking coffee, changing the radio station or iPod, applying lipstick or negotiating backseat arguments between siblings can all take drivers' attention off of what should be their sole focus. Nevertheless, the reality of daily life - and the multitasking it requires from most of us - gets in the way, and car time often demands more than just steering, accelerating, braking, and turning. That is not ideal, to be sure, but it also does not represent an alarming public safety hazard. Cell phone use by experienced drivers falls into the same category and should not be targeted as a greater danger than the myriad other distractions drivers indulge in regularly. The data to support that intervention are lacking.
But zeroing in on the most dangerous combinations of drivers and cell phones - as the conference committee's final version of House Bill 1094 is likely to do - makes sense for all involved. Teens, phones and cars are a combination that can have dire results for many, and texting behind the wheel is unsafe at any age.