Mon, 17 Sep 2001

Is it safe to dial while driving?

JAKARTA (JP): The driver of that car forced his way and cut in right in front of you. You had to brake hard to avoid banging into his tailgate, but that was to be expected when driving among the unruly, selfish and self-centered drivers on Jakarta's streets.

What made you really mad was that, after that daring move, the guy seemed to be stuck in first gear. The road in front of him was clear, but he did not accelerate.

In your anger, you squeeze your way into the right lane to overtake him.

When you glance sideways, you know why his right foot was not doing its job: He was talking on his cellphone!

In the U.S., a battle has been raging for some time between those who want to ban the use of mobile devices -- especially mobile communication devices -- in vehicles, and those who believe that whatever they do inside their car is no business of the government.

Certainly, you will have the right to use your cellphone if you are sitting in the passenger seat, but it may be different if you are steering your car in fast-moving traffic.

The issue boils down to how much distraction can be caused by communicating with your mobile phone.

Defenders of the right to do whatever they want to with their cellphone while behind the wheel tend to equate talking on the cellphone with searching for your favorite station on your car radio and adjusting its equalizer.

Research by the U.S.-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety seems to support this, saying that the use of cellphones while driving contributed to only 1.5 percent of the total number of accidents.

However, safety advocates have been saying that so much of our attention is taken from the road when we talk on the phone that to continue driving actually becomes dangerous.

It is not merely a question of pressing the right button or glancing briefly at the screen of our cellphones.

Hands-free kits have been available for some time and they allow drivers to receive calls without having to fumble around. Voice activation has become very reliable.

Some upmarket sedans now also have cellphones already integrated into their dashboards. The debate has started because of the perceived reduced ability of the driver due to the distraction.

Several states in the U.S. have been seriously mulling over banning the use of cellphones in cars; New York has even passed a regulation to this effect.

Japan has already banned the practice for three years. Here, in Indonesia, where public safety is not yet a priority at all, let alone a top priority, no such ban can be expected in the short term.

Therefore, we will continue to see a lot of drivers talking alone with their eyes blankly gazing through their windshield -- at the same time as blocking a long line of increasingly impatient drivers behind them.

The link between traffic accidents and making phone calls while driving has not really been scientifically established.

One of the early pieces of research on this issue was presented by two researchers, Dr. Donald Redelmeier and Dr. Robert Tibshirani, who in 1997 said that talking on the phone while driving would raise the possibility of getting involved in a traffic accident by four times.

On the other hand, services are emerging that provide live voice directions for tourists and other travelers through their cellphones.

One of the examples is Roadwise ( Fortunately, in all fairness, a conversation with a person who is giving you directions as you drive is not comparable to arguing with your spouse over the phone.

There is no question that, due to the level of hazards they are exposed to when in Jakarta traffic, our drivers are generally very nimble and can respond quickly, not necessarily safely, to most roadway mishaps.

Still, if you want to become a more responsible member of Jakarta's road-user community, pull over when you need to discuss serious matters over your cellphone.

If you can usually wait until you are out of a notorious intersection before using your cellphone to avoid getting robbed by the Red Axe gangs, why can't you also wait until you are out of the way of other drivers before you do it?

Stop at the roadside and complete your mentally demanding call before you join the traffic again.

Jakarta's streets are already bad enough, without drivers who get so absorbed in their conversation and try to plan their business strategy while driving that we don't want to make the situation worse. Zatni Arbi