Thursday, February 20, 1997
Honk, wave car phone if you're a nitwit

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Although I still don't have one myself, I think car phones are a good idea.

For one thing, just based on what you can see out the car window during rush hour-and-a-half, it appears some of the men who normally would be giving vigorous attention to their noses now are using their digits to dial. This is an important step toward highway beautification.

And - correct me if I have this totally wrong - but the women cellularly chatting away while driving look suspiciously like the ones I used to see weaving along Columbia Parkway, steering with one hand and applying mascara with the other.

Sexist? I hope not. I am only reporting what I see. I do not pretend that this is scientific evidence that only men pick their noses or that only women wear makeup. I certainly do not have enough proof to suggest that the government should insist that automobile manufacturers install telephones in all our automobiles.

In fact, if you can believe a new study, car phones should be outlawed. (I know that this survey is completely scientific because they used words like epidemiologic method and case-crossover design. They also used footnotes.)

The duh factor

The New England Journal of Medicine last week published the findings of this Canadian study that compared using a cell phone with drinking and driving. The chance of an accident quadruples during a phone conversation, the report says. ''This relative risk is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit.''

And you don't even have to be holding the phone. The researchers say accidents also increase for drivers who use hands-free phones. Of course, if you use a hands-free phone, people may suspect that you are talking back to Rush Limbaugh.

So, it took a bunch of researchers and probably a bunch of money to ''discover'' what any sensible person already knows. If you are driving, that's all you should be doing. There is a reason luxury cars do not have a driver's side television or a Nintendo built into the steering wheel.

And, the research team adds helpfully - just in case we think they are advocating drinking and driving - while the callers are four times more likely to get into an accident while they are on the phone, their extra risk drops back to normal as soon as they hang up.

Well, as they say in the lunchroom, duh.

''I don't see it myself,'' says Chris Waldeck of the Cincinnati Police Division's traffic unit. ''I see a lot of drunks who get in accidents, but I can't say I ever saw one caused by a car phone.'' Of course, he has been studying this for only 16 years. And he does not come with footnotes.

The lipstick report

''Sometimes I look over and see a woman putting on lipstick going 65 miles an hour, and I think that looks like an accident waiting to happen,'' he says. ''But I never arrive at a scene and find a woman with lipstick all over her nose.''

Perhaps we should commission a study.

Or pass a law.

Or use our own common sense.

The number of cell phones in the United States grew 1,685 percent from 1986 to 1995. There are now 34 million subscribers here. During the same time, auto accidents fell 17 percent and fatalities dropped 26 percent. Of course, we also have air bags and seat belts and better emergency services. And people with cell phones who report accidents faster.

My mother has one, and she usually lets it ring about 12 times before she answers. Mom claims she is in the shower or busy in another part of the car. She really just waits until she gets out of traffic and can talk on the phone.

She's on the road a lot, and it gives me a lot of peace knowing that she has AAA and 911 on her speed dial. A thoroughly sensible woman, she sees the car phone as simply another safety device. She does not play with it.

Maybe Canadians are different. We'll probably find out. I'll bet some American is filling out a grant application right now. I hope none of my tax money pays for it. Then I really hope somebody who is looking for a re-election issue won't decide to pass a law.

Common sense is already legal.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.