Cell Phone Jingle: Reach Out and Kill Someone

My friend has a cell phone in her car. It might as well be a vial of nitroglycerin. When she calls me from it, I cringe. The conversation is pleasant enough; it's just that I picture her talking and driving at the same time--and it's not a pretty sight.

This is someone who several years ago mistook a driveway for a street in Mission Viejo and drove her car through someone's garage door. With her car immobilized, she knocked on the resident's front door and said, "You might want to put on a pot of coffee."

And that was before she had a cell phone.

I shouldn't be glib, because driving is serious business. Last week in Orange County, a driver apparently dialing a number on his cell phone was killed after he ran a red light and rammed a truck, authorities said.

Meanwhile, across America, the debate heats up over using cell phones while driving.

The argument divides along classic lines involving personal freedom. Because using a cell phone doesn't automatically make someone dangerous behind the wheel, why forbid people to use them?

Phone-chatting isn't the same as driving drunk. Besides, accidents happen while we fumble with road maps or putting CDs on the changer. We don't ban them.

It's also inarguable that phones can be helpful while driving--to report emergencies or inform someone of your whereabouts.

Nor is there a definitive study showing that cell phones are highway killers on a massive scale. My search of news stories indicates studies are inconclusive, because authorities don't always know if a phone was in use. One study suggests that at least 600 people are dying in phone-related accidents, but that is a small fraction of the overall fatality rate.

I've just made a nice argument for cell phones in cars--except that I'm strongly against them.

I vex myself, because my libertarian instinct says that individuals reign supreme unless their actions impinge on others' rights.

I should be defending the use of cell phones and arguing that we only penalize users if they contribute to an accident.

Did someone once say consistency was overrated?

I hope so, because I'm throwing my libertarianism out the car window when it comes to cell phones.

It's strictly a gut reaction. No more analysis. Don't show me a study showing phones don't cause an inordinate number of accidents.

Common sense guides me. Talking on a phone while driving puts people in jeopardy. Make your own list of things you don't want to hear on the phone while driving:

"My lawyer says I'm entitled to the house and the boat." "I lost our winning lottery ticket."

"A tree crashed through our upstairs bedroom."

Maybe you'd continue driving safely after getting that kind of news. For all I know, maybe you can drive safely while playing a violin. Most of us couldn't.

The clincher for me, though, has nothing to do with any of that.

It boils down to the needlessness of yakking on the phone when stacked against the possible consequences. We already have too many cases of otherwise good people who absent-mindedly run a red light and inflict carnage on others. The absent-minded motorist ends up in jail; the victim ends up in a coffin.

I think of the soccer mom transporting a carload of kids. I think of the real estate agent making his or her rounds. I think of carefree teens out for a spin. And on and on.

Then I think of how they'd live with knowing that a phone call they made--a call that could have waited--led to tragedy.

It's not worth it, folks.

New York has banned cell phone use while driving. The California Legislature came close this year and likely will try again.

This isn't Wyoming. If there's one thing California has plenty of, it's offramps, side streets and parking lots. Is it really asking too much for people to pull over and park before making a call?

I hear the libertarian's cry.

I hear other cries too. They're from people who could be killed for a phone call. To my ear, those cries ring louder and truer.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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