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  • By Jordan W. Charness

    Wow! If you read all of the ads in the newspaper, it is amazing to see what terrific deals you can get on a cell phone. I can still remember the days when automobile communication systems were restricted to taxi cabs and police cars. Of course, they were not using cell technology, but radio waves set at certain frequencies reserved only for these particular uses.

    I once heard an interview with someone credited as being the father of personal communications. Apparently, he developed technology during World War II that helped the allies find their spies and send messages to them that no one else could hear. This changed the broadcast medium to a narrowcast version that would be directed to only one individual receiver. The same gentleman is credited with inventing the beeper and the walkie-talkie. He was in his ’80s when the interview was recorded and even he was surprised at how personal communication devices have taken over the world.

    Over the years, cellular technology has become affordable for the masses. In some countries, more people have cellular phones than land-line phones in their homes. New cell phones can now be set to vibrate instead of ring, make calls based on your voice commands, and pick up e-mail messages or connect to the Internet. And it seems that the more that a cell phone can do the cheaper the price of entry.

    Allowing you to keep in touch and stay in touch no matter where you are is generally perceived as a good thing. Parents can find their children, husbands can find their wives and vice versa and even business meetings can be conducted by cell phone. The problem is that cell phones have become too pervasive: almost everywhere you look you can see someone talking into their cell phone. And that includes people who are driving their cars.

    If you think back just a short while, most cell phones only operated from a vehicle. They were called car phones and due to their size and complexity had to be wired into your car in order to work. The handset was about the same size as a home telephone and the battery was your 12 volt car battery. There was nothing portable about these phones but it least you could use them while driving. Many of them came with hands free options which consisted of a microphone in your sun visor and a large speaker hidden under your dashboard.

    At that time no one seemed much worried about the safety factor of driving while talking on the telephone. Now however its become a really big deal and all levels of government in Canada and the United States are looking at whether or not they should restrict or even outlaw talking on a cell phone while driving.

    A while back in New York State, the governor passed a statewide ban on driving and talking on a hand-held cellular phone. It is a traffic infraction that could get you a ticket of from $25 to $100 per first offense. A second offense within 18 months would boost the fine to between $100 and $300.

    According to this law, handheld cell phone conversations would be banned but hands-free devices would still be permitted. The governor is concerned that talking on a cell phone would distract a driver and make it more likely that he would be involved in a car crash.

    Many provinces in Canada are looking into or have similar legislation, and most recently Quebec enacted a ban on hand-held cell phones while driving. It came into force April 1, 2008.

    There are a few problems with this approach. To begin with, there really has been no statistical evidence that clearly shows that talking on a cell phone leads to a car accident. The American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver inattention may cause 20 to 30 per cent of all accidents but it has been difficult to pinpoint how many of these accidents are as a result of cell phone use.

    There is no doubt that trying to dial the teeny tiny buttons on most new cell phones can be difficult while standing still and is certainly a huge distraction while driving. Hence, the voice activated telephone systems.

    But does talking on the phone itself lead to driving accidents? The studies I looked at have been inconclusive. Although they do show that cell phone conversations can be distracting, some people claim that the numbers are distorted because accident victims refuse to say that they were on the phone when the accident occurred. Since gathering statistics may be difficult, anecdotal evidence is often used.

    Even the Quebec legislation does not suggest taking away your right to speak on the telephone while driving. It just insists that you talk on a hands-free unit. One might conclude from this that the legislators feel that fumbling with a cell phone is dangerous while having conversations is not. Or you might think that the legislators realize that the cell phone industry and legions of people who use the phone will be incredibly upset with their lawmakers if their right to talk and drive is removed.

    What do you think? Drop me a line at and the results will be published in a future column.

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