March 23, 2000 -- The facts: A dozen nations already restrict or forbid motorists from using their cell phone while their vehicle is moving. More than half the states in the nation are considering similar restrictions. Several small American communities now severely restrict cell-phone use and hundreds of other municipalities are mulling some sort of cell-phone ban.
The truth: Smart drivers should be worried less about where cell phone use may eventually be banned and more about whether their own in-car phone practices are already endangering themselves and other motorists. No one likes their personal liberties restricted, but risking life and limb just to make a call is nothing short of a death wish.
A Canadian study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the risk of an accident increases fourfold if the driver is using a cell phone. That's about the same short-term risk as driving while drunk. A National Transportation Safety Administration report on 1998 crash data showed that "driver distraction" was a factor in about one of every four fatal accidents. Cell phones were a factor in at least 57 deaths, compared with only seven in 1991.
And since cell-phone usage has exploded since the 1998 study--the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last month that 44 percent of drivers now have cell phones in the vehicles they normally drive--the accident numbers are surely piling up.
"People are tired of seeing drivers weave in and out of traffic, paying more attention to their conversation on the phone than what's in front of them on the road," Atlanta police chief Jack Murphy recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
How do you make sure you're not risking an accident and endangering your life over a cell phone? Here are some tips.
Don't dial the phone and never take notes on a conversation if you're driving. If you must make calls, pull over to the side of the road. If you believe that is not practical, purchase a cell-phone "cradle" that permits you to use hands-free dialing. Make sure the phone is easy to see and reach.
If your phone rings while driving, let your voice-mail service take the call and listen to the message later when you are parked. Alternately, if there are passengers in the car, let them handle the ringing phone. Never answer the phone while driving in heavy traffic or when road conditions are poor.
Memorize your phone and its features so you don't have to look for each button while dialing. Put any frequently used numbers into the phone's memory, then use the speed-dial and redial buttons. That will reduce your need to fumble with the phone while driving.
Be practical. Tell the person you are speaking to that you are driving and try to keep the conversation to a minimum. And always end or suspend the conversation when you are negotiating heavy traffic or hazardous road or weather conditions.
While talking on the phone, check your mirrors every few seconds and keep your hands on the wheel.
Never engage in stressful or emotional conversations while driving. The higher the stress level of the call, the more danger you're in.
"Talking to your divorce lawyer late at night on a twisting road when it's raining is not the right call," says Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the cell-phone industry trade group.
Want more information on driving and cell-phone use? The Driver Distraction Internet Forum (http://www.driverdistraction.org) links to many studies, technical reports and discussion groups. And the CTIA has set up a telephone number (888-901-SAFE) to consider driving and cellular-phone use.This column originally appeared at Mapquest.com.