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Last call

Calling all cars: Be on the lookout for errant drivers fumbling for their new hands-free devices. Avoid their swerves and keep your own hands at 10 and 2. This new cellphone law is going to take some getting used to.

As pretty much every California motorist knows, today it becomes illegal to talk on the phone while driving -- unless the driver’s end of the conversation takes place on equipment that leaves both hands available for the steering wheel. The law raises the sort of questions that middle school students just love: What’s the point of the restriction if you still need one hand to punch in phone numbers or to insert your new earpiece? How does the law help if it remains legal to drive with a hand on the CD player, or wrapped around a breakfast burrito, or stuck out the window in a gesture toward the guy who just cut you off?

It’s common sense that drivers with two hands on the wheel have more control, but that doesn’t automatically mean that it’s more dangerous to hold a phone than a cheeseburger. People who gab and steer at the same time become hazardous on the road because their attention is divided between the conversation and the stop sign. But that’s just as true of riveting banter between the person in the driver’s seat and the one riding shotgun.

We will know whether the law is a success only after months or years of gathering data. And no, we don’t mean data on how many tickets were written or how much money was raised in new traffic fines. The cellphone restriction will prove worthy if accidents decline.

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It would be unfortunate if a majority of drivers responded by getting too comfortable with their new headsets and taking one more step toward turning their cars into mobile offices. As traffic worsens and people spend more time on the freeway, we look for ways to make the lost time productive. But driving while phoning or, more dangerously, while texting -- oddly still perfectly legal for adult drivers -- endangers lives and slows traffic even further.

That leaves this safer solution if you don’t like to drive with blue lights in your ear or wires running from your headset to a phone sitting in the ashtray, or if you wonder whether you look as silly as the driver next to you, smiling or yelling into space: Just turn off the phone until you turn off the engine.


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