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Urban Rhythms

Driven to Distraction

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 1/3/2001

Who has the guts to tell a grieving mother to go to hell? I know I don't. As for politicians, well, it depends on the issue.

When mothers marched on Washington last summer on behalf of gun safety, the political establishment in effect told them to go to hell. Will politicians be so bold in the face of the growing movement to outlaw using cell phones while driving? I seriously doubt it.

We go back to a bright, sunny afternoon in November 1999. A 29-year-old Pennsylvania woman named Patricia Pena had strapped her 2-year-old daughter, Morgan, into a car seat and headed home after visiting with her cousin. News accounts of that fatal journey were full of descriptions of the little girl, but just take it on faith--she was cute. And she didn't deserve to die.

A 27-year-old man, momentarily distracted while he looked down to place a call on his cell phone, drove through a stop sign, and broadsided Pena's vehicle. Little Morgan suffered a head injury and died the next day. The driver of the other vehicle reportedly received a $50 ticket.

And so was born a national movement to ban phoning while driving. Through an organization called Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, Pena and other bereaved mothers are pushing local lawmakers to ban or at least severely restrict wireless-phone use by drivers. The group has established a Web site, and Pena and her husband told their story on Oprah before an appropriately outraged audience. Researchers dug up a 1997 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that concluded that driving while talking is almost as hazardous as driving while drunk.

Lawmakers across the country are beginning to listen. At least 37 states, including Maryland, have considered restricting the use of wireless phones in cars. None of these states has passed such a law, yet. But it's inevitable. Like I said, who has the guts to say "no" to a mother who has lost her child? We cannot tell her little Morgan's death was God's will, because we are not a very spiritual society and such a statement would therefore sound harsh and unfeeling. We cannot suggest that the problem may not be the absence of laws, but that stupid people continue to do stupid things. For example, we already forbid running through a stop sign or operating a vehicle in a careless or unsafe manner. But how can such sophistry prevail against a mother's tears?

And so we keep piling regulations on top of ordinances on top of laws. Pretty soon we'll add driving while talking to the growing list of offenses that can lead to tickets, fines, and even incarceration. In recent years, we have passed laws mandating the use of seat belts and car seats and, in the case of motorcycle riders, helmets. We have passed ever more stringent prohibitions against drinking and driving. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving plans to push this year for legislation to ban passengers, as well as drivers, from drinking in a moving vehicle.)

And, despite our best efforts, people still disobey, and innocent people still get hurt or killed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a quarter of the more than 6 million car crashes that occur annually nationwide are caused by "driver distractions." So why not ban eating and driving, gossiping and driving, or listening to the radio and driving? Why not make it an offense for any driver to remove his hands from the steering wheel for more than 30 seconds at any time? Why not suspend the driver's license of any person who acts stupidly, even if the act of stupidity occurred outside of a moving vehicle? Not long ago I foolishly removed a hot dish from the oven with my bare hands. Surely I'm too absent-minded to be trusted behind the wheel.

I believe our need to ban things is bad. We put too much faith in arresting, incarcerating, or ticketing our way out of a problem, and not enough faith in education. We sell ourselves short.

For most of us, the circumstances surrounding Morgan Pena's death speak for themselves. More and more people are trying to limit or even stop using their phones while driving. A growing percentage of those who feel compelled to use their phones while driving are seeking out handless devices, such as headsets. With increasing frequency, I hear radio call-in hosts urge callers on cell phones to pull to the side of the road before continuing their conversation.

Stupid people will continue to be stupid, no matter what we do. Thoughtless, careless, and criminal people will continue to evade any regulation we try to pass. Against stupidity, a wise man once said, the gods themselves contend in vain. But try telling that to little Morgan's parents.

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