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Monday, August 24,2009

Can you hear me now?

by Neal McNamara
It was just days before the beginning of the school year in August 2002 and 13-year-old Eric Lee Reyff was gearing up to play high school football for the first time. Reyff, his mother and young sister were returning from a routine trip to the store and were stopped in their car, a 1999 Mercury Sable, by the side of the road near the intersection of Kinsey Avenue and Route 37, just south of downtown Caledonia near Grand Rapids.

From behind them came a man in a pickup truck. He didn’t see the stopped car and slammed into the back of it, killing Eric Reyff.

It was later discovered that the man had been reaching across the seat to answer his cell phone, which caused him to not see the vehicle in front of him. The man, Daniel May, later pleaded “no contest” to a negligent homicide charge in Reyff’s death and was sentenced to three months’ probation and 200 hours of community service and fitted with an electronic tether for 90 days.


Reyff’s grandmother, Sue, a member of the Middleville planning commission, thinks that her grandson would be alive if Michigan had had a ban on using cell phones while driving.

“I’m sure the man who killed my grandson was sorry, but nonetheless, it happened,” she said. “Jail time is a penalty, but I’m not sure if it’s sufficient. The most sufficient thing would be that we would not be allowed to talk, whether (on a) handheld device, or texting.”

The horror of the accident that killed her grandson came back a couple of years later. Reyff and her husband were eating at a restaurant near their home when a passing motorist, distracted by a cell phone, plowed into their car, totaling it.


“Thank goodness we weren’t out there,” she said. “And (the driver) had a little child in a car seat.”


Michigan is one of 20 states that does not have any type of state law banning the use of a cell phone or sending or reading a text message while driving. Only five states and the District of Columbia require the use of handsfree devices when operating cellphones. And some experts believe that talking on handsfree devices is no safer than talking on the phone itself.

Statistics for 2001 through 2007 compiled by the Michigan State Police show that traffic accidents caused by drivers distracted by cellphone use have killed 3 to 5 each year, with injuries each year reaching the hundreds. Anecdotal evidence from police officers and everyday driving in the Lansing area show that cell-phone use while driving is common, despite studies that show that such behavior is akin to drunk driving — even when motorists use a hands-free device.

At the same time the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, known as NHTSA, says that, “Cell phone use can distract drivers from this task, risking harm to themselves and others. “Research shows that driving while using a cell phone can pose a serious cognitive distraction and degrade driver performance.”

There are several pieces of legislation in the Legislature, some that would ban text messaging while driving, others that would require drivers to use a hands-free device while driving, and some that would ban school bus drivers from texting or using a cell phone.

Still, the laws are in their infancy and estimated to perhaps take several years to be passed, while some interest groups — including one that represents school bus drivers— are opposed to the laws.



Danger all around


Have you ever felt the imposing presence of a fellow motorist driving just inches from your bumper and glanced back to see him chatting on a cell phone? How many times have you seen other drivers on the highway speeding or weaving in and out of traffic and caught a glimpse of them passing by and — you guessed it — they are fully engaged on their phone?


Have you ever been that person, not noticing you are speeding or that you just blew through a stop sign while engaged in a conversation? Have you ever taken your eyes off the road for a few seconds to read a text message, looking up in time to notice that you’re veering off the road?


According to NHTSA, at any given time, around 2 million drivers are out there, right now, talking on their cell phones. Researchers estimate, however, that the number is much higher — some 270 million Americans, according to NHTSA estimates, own cell phones, which is a daunting number since there are 300 million of us.


Lansing traffic officer Phil Bailey, who has been on the job 25 years, has seen a lot of bad driving. Lately, a lot of those bad drivers seem to be using cell phones.

“What I see is when I’m monitoring traffic for speeding violations or anything like that, they’re on the cell phone as they go by. I have seen that a lot. Maybe 40 percent of my traffic stops for speeding are people who are on the cell phone as they go by,” he said.


“It kind of annoys you,” he said of seeing people violating the law while chatting.

But in Lansing — as with every major city in the state except for Detroit — it’s not against the law to drive and talk, or drive and text. In fact, on forms used by Lansing Police, if an accident or violation is caused by a cell phone (which is also hard to prove, because the driver would have to admit to being on the phone), it is recorded as “distracted driver.”


“It’s a difficult thing,” Lansing Police Sgt. Leith Curtis said. “If there are accidents (caused by cell phones), there’s nothing that allows us to capture that data. We can’t say percentage-wise one way or the other.”

According to data from the Michigan State Police, there were 892 traffic accidents in 2007 caused by drivers using cell phones. Of those accidents, three resulted in death, 26 in near-fatal injuries and close to 250 other serious injuries. In 2006, four were killed as a result of cell-phone use, which was more deaths that year than were caused by fatigue, falling asleep at the wheel, or use of medication. Cell-phone use causes an estimated 25 percent of car accidents recorded by the police across the country, according to NHTSA. A 2003 Harvard University study estimated that 2,600 are killed each year related to cellphone use while driving.

Alyson Kechkaylo, a state police spokeswoman, said that the department’s figures are probably low because drivers don’t readily admit that an accident was caused while they were driving and talking.

In all his years as an officer, Bailey remembers only one time when a driver has admitted that an accident was caused by talking on the phone.

Larry Hrinik, head of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Davison Township Chief Police Department, says that his organization is in favor of a ban on text messaging while driving, but it is not taking a position on talking on a cell phone while driving. The organization would like to see more comprehensive legislation to combat all driving distractions, Hrinik said, also mentioning a recent incident where he observed a driver reading a newspaper.

According to a 2007 study by University of Utah
psychology professors David Strayer and Frank Drews, drivers using
hands-free devices are still distracted and psychologically blind to
objects in their path. The study used a simulated driving experience,
and even factored for driver experience, but still found that braking
time and the amount of collisions were higher when a subject was using
a cell phone.

Strayer
and Drews concluded, “The dynamic nature of both driving and conversing
on a cell phone precludes the possibility of practicing away the
dual-task costs associated with concurrent task performance.”

In
other words, no matter how experienced a driver you are, using a cell
phone while driving is a serious distraction.


Another Utah study found
that driving and talking was equivalent to driving after consuming the
legal limit of alcohol.



A 'ways to go' before ban


State Rep. Lee Gonzalez, D-Flint, had a harrowing cell phone-related driving incident. His
pregnant daughter-in-law was sitting in traffic on Interstate 69 when a
driver talking on his cell phone rear-ended her. Luckily, she was far
enough along on the pregnancy, Gonzalez said, that the baby was strong
enough to survive.

"These laws are about our loved ones," he
said. "All the data shows it’s time to do something."


Gonzalez has
authored a bill that aims to ban text messaging while driving — a
measure that 18 states have enacted, and several more have banned
drivers below a certain age from texting.

To Gonzalez, the
thought of someone behind the wheel trying to read or send a text
message is ridiculous. Still, his law would make texting and driving
only a secondary offense — something that you could be cited for after
being pulled over a more serious moving violation like speeding or
running a red light.

"I would sure feel badly if I ended up
crashing into somebody just because I’m in a conversation on a cell
phone, or I'm trying to text while driving," Gonzalez said. "It’s just
insipid."


In Michigan, legislators have been introducing bills since
2001 to regulate cell-phone use in cars. Right now, eight bills are
before the Legislature that would deal with banning the use of cell
phones while driving, but none has gotten out of committee.

State
Sen. Raymond Basham, D-Detroit, has introduced a bill that would ban
texting and talking on the phone, except for emergencies and if you're
using a hands-free device.

State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw,
has introduced two pieces of legislation, one that would ban school bus
drivers from texting while driving, and a separate law that would ban
all drivers from using a handheld cell phone. Kahn’s law would allow
drivers to use a hands-free device. When informed recent studies
have shown that hands free devices are still distracting, he said he
would be willing to consider that data.


“That would be reason to
rethink the entire wisdom of the bill,” he said.


Kahn’s legislation
came from a similar place as Gonzalez’. A young woman was rearended in
Saginaw County by a driver talking on a cell phone, and the woman’s
mother came to Kahn to ask for a ban. Kahn’s school bus texting ban was
inspired by a 2004 school bus crash in Alexandria, Va., where a bus
carrying high school students crashed into an overpass. The
driver was using a cell phone at the time and did not see low clearance
warning signs; there were no deaths in the crash, but several students
were injured, one seriously, and the accident was blamed on “cognitive
distractions.”

There has been pushback, however, on laws such
as Kahn’s from a surprising place: statewide associations that
represent school bus drivers and school administrators.

Paul
Wegmeyer, director of transportation for Holt Public Schools, and the
chairman of the legislative committee for the Michigan Association for
Pupil Transportation, says that his group does not want a ban on use of
cell phones in school buses because it could prohibit future technology
that might make it easier for bus drivers to monitor their passengers and their routes.

“We’re
looking for an opportunity to preserve an opening for some future
technology that’s going to be coming into transportation industry,”
Wegmeyer said. “We could equip buses to receive information on whether
students are riding or not riding — so they don’t have to put eyes on
(a route sheet).”

Wegmeyer said that bus drivers are already
distracted enough because they have to constantly monitor children and
check paperwork to make sure they are hitting all their stops. There
are also some rural school districts that use two-way cellular radio
devices to communicate. Technology that could be installed in the
dashboards of school buses would save school districts money and time
and make students safer, he said.


“We’re concerned about a blanket
prohibition on data transfer; we just want to make sure that doesn’t
get waxed over as we try to make a broad ban of texting and cell-phone use,”
he said.


School bus drivers, Wegmeyer said, in contradiction to the
University of Utah study, are trained to multitask safely — they are
taught to be constantly looking in mirrors, at gauges, and at students’
behavior.

“It’s a practice of the industry to look ahead, look
to the side, look to the gauges. It’s just a constant thing,” he said.


Brad Biladeau, a government relations associate with the Michigan
Association of School Administrators, echoed Wegmeyer about in-bus
technology.

“We are by no means supportive of districts
utilizing cell phones to text message for personal reasons; it
endangers students and should not be allowed,” he said. “We support
legislation that would stop driving while texting — the concern is
based upon those districts where they utilize (Nextel-like two way
radios). The way the legislations is interpreted is that it prohibits
cell-phone use for any purpose.”


Kahn says he’s willing to sit down
with these groups to see if a compromise could be hashed out. “The
issue for those drivers is their passengers, these children,” Kahn
said. “They need to be concentrating on safely transporting these
children to and from school. Things that get in the way of doing that
are extraneous and distractions and secondary in every sense of the
word to their mission. If we don’t agree on that, we’re going to have
to see where we can get together and agree.”

Other private
interests do agree with the ban. AAA Michigan lobbyist Heather Drake
says the driving association supports a ban on texting while driving
and encourages its members not to talk while driving — whether it be
hands free or handheld.

Michelle Gilbert, a Verizon
spokeswoman, says that the cellphone company supports banning texting
or emailing while driving. While the company does not support talking
with a handheld cell phone while driving, it does encourage the use of
a hands-free device. (It is a company policy that all employees must
use a handsfree device while talking and driving.)


“There’s no reason
we wouldn’t support legislation in Michigan that’s supportive of
responsible driving,” she said. “It’s not our place to be against bills
or laws.”


Other cell-phone companies might not be as supportive.
According to a July 19 New York Times article about cell-phone bans,
Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T fought various bans in California between
2001 and 2006. Legislation was eventually passed, however, to ban
talking unless the driver is using a hands-free device. However, that
same story reported that cell-phone companies since 2006 have stopped
opposing such bans and quoted
a Nationwide Mutual car insurance representative who asserted that the
companies have done so because they rely less on the minutes cell-phone
users spend, and more on downloads of games and the use of wireless
Internet.

AT&T spokesman Joe Steele replied in e-mail to an inquiry about the company’s support for banning talking and driving.

“AT&T
has long advised customers not to use a phone to send messages while
driving. We support the current legislation in concept and look forward
to the opportunity to work with policymakers on this important issue."


Gonzalez expects to hear about further opposition to the ban at a House Transportation Committee hearing scheduled for September, when
he said he “hopes” to line up enough votes to get it out of committee.

Kahn,
however, said that the process would likely take a long time. Sometimes
a law will pass through the Senate unanimously, but will get pilloried
in the House.

“You usually find out about folks who have
concerns when you start to schedule bills for discussion before
committee,” he said. “It’ll be at that time (when the law is heard in
committee) we’ll start hearing the first round of concerns or support.
We’ve got a ways to go before these passed and ready for law.”



Drive now, talk later


Since
her grandson was killed, Reyff has spent much of the intervening years
encouraging people not to talk and drive. Sometimes, if she sees
drivers using phones while driving, she’ll tell them what she thinks.

“I
once spoke to a man when I saw him using his cell phone (and driving).
He said, ‘This is how I do my business.’ But my grandson can’t do
business. People are pretty indignant about it; they feel that it’s
their personal space.”

Reyff has spoken in drivers’ education
classes, to officials in other cities and to lawmakers in attempts to
get a ban on cell-phone-use while driving. A local state
representative, she said, told her that a law banning drivers under 18
from texting or talking would be fine — because they don’t vote. But
it’s not just teenagers she’s worried about. (Michigan’s secretary of
state can censure drivers age 14 years and 9 months to 19 if they are
ticketed for incidents related to cell-phone use, which could extend
their probationary driving period and force them to re-take their
driving test. The SoS cannot enact a law restricting driving while
talking or texting without the Legislature or the governor.)


In both
her incidents with cell phone-related driving accidents, it’s been an
adult behind the wheel.

“My friends are always talking about
driving along and someone cutting them off. And it’s people driving and
using their cell phones,” she said. “In both instances that hit my
family, it’s been an adult that’s driving.

“I would love our state to have (a ban). I know it’s going to be tough, but I just know it’s going to be so important.”



Corrections: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story should have stated that Sen. Kahn is a Republican. Also, state Rep. Gonzalez' name was misspelled.

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