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Steve Heilig

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Hang Up and Drive, Governor Brown

Posted: 09/29/11 02:30 PM ET

You've seen them, blazing down the road in their cars and SUVs and trucks, yakking on a phone. And if you do, it might be smart to pull over and leave as much room as you can between you and them, for they are a serious hazard to life and limb.

And for the time being, there is not much else to be done about the risk they pose. What they are doing is illegal, but that law is not enforced much, and even when it is, the monetary fine is not enough to matter much. But our governor has apparently been talking -- or rather, listening -- to some of the wrong people recently, on his cell phone or otherwise.

I voted for Jerry Brown for governor and would do so again (not that there was any real competition last time, but one never knows...). But he flubbed a big one this month when he vetoed a bill that would have significantly increased fines for using a cell phone for talk or texting while driving. And he gave even more cause for concern by using Rush Limbaugh-esqe terms like "nanny state" -- a hallmark of reactionary non-thought.

"Not every human problem deserves a law," Brown said, regarding another veto in the same legislative package. He's certainly right there! But this problem apparently does -- and in fact there already is one, but it is not tough enough. "For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent," Brown also said, but a state survey from 2010 that showed that at least one quarter of drivers talked on a handheld device sometimes or regularly. And, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, "Current data suggest that each year, at least 1.6 million traffic accidents (28% of all crashes) in the United States are caused by drivers talking on cell phones or texting."

Big deal? Well, yes. We've known for a long time now that the distraction caused by using phones is serious and contributes to accidents. Over a decade ago, I wrote an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle noting that a decade before that, when we proposed banning smoking tobacco in restaurants, "The response was vehement from the tobacco industry; They attacked the data (wrongly), said that eateries would be forced out of business (wrong again) and called us "public health fascists" -- this latter term a precursor of "nanny," perhaps.

And sure enough, a similar scenario took place when a ban on using phones while driving was proposed in San Francisco. We succeeded in getting a first, and partial, phone/car ban locally, but only after a nasty fight; one Supervisor told me, "The phone industry guys were as aggressive as the tobacco guys you unleashed on us last time!" And so I now wonder how much input the telecommunications lobbyists had in the governor's office this time.

Driving while on the phone, or worse, texting, has been shown to be similar in risk to driving while legally drunk. Perhaps it will take a movement similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving to achieve fully rational policy on this topic. Unfortunately and tragically, there are a growing number of relatives of people who have been hurt or killed by people driving while texting or phoning. Maybe it's time for that movement to unite and speak louder in Sacramento than profit-fueled lobbyists. MADD, even if rhetorically excessive at times, has had some real success combating a terrible problem. Out of their own tragedies, they've saved lives.

As a daily pedestrian, I can testify that cell phone use is common, that it distracts people, causing many "close calls," and that some people are downright obnoxious about it too. But since nobody sane and/or sober believes that drunk driving is OK, we should agree that phone use, scientifically shown to be of similar risk, should bear similar consequences (with exceptions for real emergency situations and personnel, of course). If you think you "have" to be able to use your phone while driving your car, that's a delusion. Your business is just not that important that you can't pull over or wait until you get wherever your next stop is.

Hopefully Senator Joe Simitian, and/or other legislators, will try once again to remedy this lapse in public safety policy. When and if a new proposal comes forward, I'd propose an approach that should alleviate Brown's concern about the fines being a burden on "people of ordinary means":

Anyone caught using a cell phone/texting while driving shall have their drivers' license suspended for one year.

That should get people's attention back on the road. And then, we can begin to deal with the fact that "hands-free" phones are hardly any better. Being on the road is one of the most dangerous things we do as it is. So, pull over and talk if you must, but in any event, hang up and drive. Be careful out there.