Cell phones in cars

Cell phones have picked up their share of critics as they have become more popular among communicating consumers.

There are complaints about cell phones ringing in public places like theaters and restaurants. There are complaints about the loud, one-sided conversations that annoy anyone nearby. And there are worries about the safety of using cell phones while driving.

The Illinois Legislature has sent a bill to Gov. Rod Blagojevich that would bar 16- and 17-year-olds -- those just learning to drive -- from using cell phones while driving. Even hands-free devices, often cited as a safe alternative, would be banned.

Also last month, the Chicago City Council banned anyone at any age from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Hands-free cell phones are still OK in the Windy City.

The proponents of the Illinois legislation to restrict cell-phone use by young motorists actually wanted to ban the use of cell phones by anyone driving in Illinois. But it was obvious such legislation would be difficult, if not impossible to pass, so they chose the tactic of getting the camel's nose into the tent with the hope that the rest of the beast would be allowed inside at some future date.

While cell phones certainly can be a distraction for some motorists, the fact is that anyone who gets behind the wheel must contend with many distractions. It's a part of driving. Children cry. Hot coffee spills into the driver's lap. A wasp starts buzzing around the dashboard. Music blares from a teenager's boom box. Someone in the back seat insists you should slow down, speed up or turn here -- now!

But there are no laws banning wailing infants, clumsy coffee drinkers, stinging insects, ear-splitting music or nagging back-seat drivers.

There are, however, laws that require motorists to be careful and prudent. If any motorist, young or old, is expected to deal with any of the possible distractions that come with being behind the wheel, then it makes sense most motorists can decide how to operate a vehicle when a cell phone is present. For some, that might mean keeping the cell phone turned off. Others might choose hands-free devices. Others might feel they are competent to drive, talk on a cell phone and chew gum at the same time.

What would be useful, though, is for some reputable agency to collect the data that show whether or not driving and talking on a cell phone is really dangerous. When seat-belt proponents began their efforts to legislate buckling up years ago, they did it by citing case after case of injuries that resulted from not wearing the belts. Those who want to cut off cell-phone communication while driving need to do the same thing.