Time to Hang Up

know I shouldn’t do it—and not just because my mom scolds me when I call her during my evening commute home. We all know we shouldn’t do it.

Despite this, we have turned our cars into high-speed phone booths and offices, making and taking calls, typing text messages and, based on the status updates of some of my friends, posting to Facebook and Twitter. (Mom, I don’t text or tweet while driving. Promise.) The problem has gotten so bad that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood plans a national summit this month on cell phones and other driving distractions.Some Wisconsin legislators have proposed banning cell phone use for drivers under the age of eighteen (making an exception for emergencies).

That would be a good start, but it wouldn’t go far enough.

It’s against the law to text and drive in more than a dozen states; a handful of states ban cell phone use altogether. The main argument against these bans is that drivers are distracted by other activities—eating, rocking out to a favorite song on the radio or trying to draw the invisible line between the kids in the back seat. While it’s true that all of those things take our focus off the road at times, there’s overwhelming evidence persuading me that cell phones are in a class of their own.

Researchers at the University of Utah have found drivers using cell phones had the same risk of crashing as a drunken driver. Federal highway safety researchers have determined hands-free headsets don’t eliminate the risk of serious accidents for cell phone users either.

Texting is even worse; drivers take their eyes off the road for about five seconds when doing it.

The head of a new Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of the dangers of texting told The New York Times that “texting is in its own universe of risk” compared to the other distractions drivers face.

Still not convinced? Fine, then here’s a different kind of reason to support a ban: money.

Members of the U.S. Senate have proposed a bill that would punish states who don’t ban drivers from texting and e-mailing by cutting twenty-five percent from their federal highway funds each year. That’s not something we can afford in a time when we’re making cuts to almost every corner of the state budget.

Either way, we all stand to lose too much.

Jenny Price is a Madison native who covered the state Capitol for the Associated Press and has written about Wisconsin politics for a decade. E-mail her at jenny.price@gmail.com.