Dialing While Driving: Hazard Or Hype?

Beyond the dangers of intoxicated drivers and road rage lies another threat on America's highways: drivers who are so busy fiddling with their high-tech gadgets, they forget the basics of safe driving.

Federal highway safety regulators began a series of public hearings Tuesday on what, if anything, should be done about the use of these devices while driving.

CBS News Transportation Correspondent Bob Orr reports that at least 4,000 accidents happen every day because drivers are distracted, according to a group called the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety.

At Tuesday's meeting on Capitol Hill, experts told a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration panel that distractions like cell phones, map systems, and even radios play a role in at least 20 to 30 percent of all crashes. And a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine says talking on the phone quadruples a driver's chance of having an accident.

"There's strong evidence at this point that diverting visual attention away from the roadway results in an increased risk of crashes," said Thomas Dingus, of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

One of those accidents took the life of 2-year-old Ryan Duffner, who was hit by a car which went off the road as its driver dialed a cell phone in March 1999.

His mother, Lisa Duffner, was also seriously hurt and since that tragic day she's been on a crusade against the use of handheld phones while a car is in motion.

In an interview with CBS News Duffner rejects claims by drivers who argue we already have too many laws and don't need any new ones regulating cell phone use.

"Everybody thinks it's their freedom to have this phone. My son had a right to life," said Duffner.

Duffner nonetheless is not seeking to have all cell phones banned from use by drivers – just those which must be held in the hand of the driver.

Duffner, who says a total ban would be "too strict," cites a accident she heard about on the news: "There was a woman stopped at a train, the person behind them didn't see that and pushed her into the train. And it was the cell phone (that) actually saved her life, by dialing 911."

CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg reports that there are an estimated 94 million people with car phones and some research indicates the actual conversation, not the holding of the phone, is the true distraction to drivers.

Many, however, believe safety is a matter of common sense and not an area for new legislation. Among those advocating that point of view is Dan Young, who was stopped and fined earlier this year for using his cell phone while driving through a Pennsylvania town where the practice had been banned.

Young fought the ticket and got the law in question overturned. "I think that we have too many laws on the books," argued Young, in an interview with CBS News. Young adds that if we are going to have laws on cell phones, tey should be uniform, so motorists are clear on when they are in violation and when they are not.

He agrees that distracted drivers are dangerous. "Absolutely," said Young. "But you can count hundreds of different distractions in the car and you can't legislate against every one of them, whether it be applying makeup or drinking a cup of coffee."

Duffner is unmoved by that argument. "My son is gone. That's because people aren't thinking...You're supposed to know better, but people don't. So we have to make laws."

Many car makers, like GM's Safety Director Terry Connolly, say car features such as voice controls and "hands-free" cell phones help reduce the distraction danger.

"We want to minimize the 'eyes off the road' time. We want to minimize the 'hands off the wheel' time," Connolly said.

But safety experts argue that even "hands-off" technology adds risk by inviting drivers to think about something besides the road.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Society of Automotive Engineers will hold a public hearing on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss efforts to improve driver safety using technology.

Also, the government has set up an ongoing Internet forum on the subject. The Web address is http://www.driverdistraction.org. The forum, which began on July 5, will last until Aug. 11.

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