Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lighter Load: Nobody cared then, but they do now

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Martin Cooper demonstrates the first portable cellular telephone. (Courtesy: ArrayComm Inc.)
Martin Cooper demonstrates the first portable cellular telephone. (Courtesy: ArrayComm Inc.)

The dangers of cell phone use while driving is to this century what the dangers of smoking were to the last century.

Back in the day before the public was aware of the dangers of cell phone use while driving, we all became accustomed to it and now undoing that, taking the phone out of a driver’s hand, is about like trying to take candy from a baby.

This is much the way it was/is with cigarettes. Once the general public was made aware of the dangers, the damage was done with advertising and marketing, not to mention addiction.

I’m not sure how soon developers of cigarettes knew they were “coffin nails,” but I do know back in the ’60s and ’70s not only did a lot of people smoke, it was cool to smoke. Besides that, watch any old black and white movie, or the old Lucy shows on TV, and even the Andy Griffith show and you’ll see the stars puffing away. Andy smoked, which is amazing to think of today, since he was such a clean-cut and wholesome guy.

Almost all of that has stopped now, except for a rare shot of someone smoking, and still in some movies actors smoke, but it’s more rare than common, unless it’s a period piece. We are constantly bombarded with news about the dangers of smoking. I know, because I’m a reformed smoker of almost six years and pray that the damage I did to my body will heal since I stopped.

Which brings me to the topic of this column: back in the day when Martin Cooper developed the first portable cell phone, he testified before a Michigan state commission about the risks of using a cell phone while driving.

People already knew there were risks involved in distracted driving. It only makes sense that drivers should keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road no matter what vehicle they drive.

So when Cooper was asked what could be done about the risks posed by the use of cell phones he gave a simple answer.

“There should be a lock on the dial so that you couldn’t dial while driving,” he said. That was in the early 1960s.

Yet here we are almost 50 years later hashing out whether or not using a cell phone while driving, including texting (which I’m pretty certain was never a thought in Cooper’s mind back in the ’60s) is dangerous.

And as writer Matt Richtel wrote in The New York Times: “Despite the mounting evidence [of the dangers of talking while using a cell phone], the industry built itself into a $150 billion business in the United States largely by winning over a crucial customer: the driver.”

Richtel goes on to speak of the tactics that were used to market the phones to drivers, originally calling them car phones and describing them as useful status symbols in ads. In a 1984 advertisement showing an executive behind the wheel of a car, and a phone to his ear, the question was asked: “Can your secretary take dictation at 55 mph?”

Wireless companies designed everything to keep people talking in their cars. And they knew the dangers.

Does anyone know where the first cell phone was used? According to AT&T on its Web site, the first mobile telephone call which used early radio technology, happened in 1946. And who was using that mobile phone? A truck driver.

In 2007 the government estimated that 11 percent of drivers were talking on their phones at any given time. Studies show that drivers talking on a cell phone are four times more likely to cause a crash and using a hands-free device does not eliminate the risk — and those texting while driving, at least for truckers, are 27 times more likely to crash.

So here we are in 2010 where in January more than 200 bills were in state legislatures with the intent to ban the use of cell phones while driving. Some bills target texting, some talking, and some both.

And as I discussed in my last column, truckers have been banned from texting while driving and more will be disclosed soon on other measures taken that target truckers’ use of cell phones.

Cooper, who is now 81, figured out early on that this technology he was part of was full of risks.

“I’d pass by the exit I was supposed to take because I was talking on the phone,” he said in an interview with the Times. He added that he was “absolutely” aware of potential dangers but did not think roads would become filled with distracted drivers.

One junior researcher in 1990 who worked for GTE, which later became part of Verizon, was scared as he noticed more drivers distracted by phones. When he asked a supervisor if the company should research the risks he was quickly shut down.

“Why would we want to do that?” the supervisor asked him. The message? Learning about distraction would not be good for business.

Back in 1984 those outside the cell phone industry began to worry too. AAA urged drivers to park before using their phones. In 1991 the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety financed a study that found drivers talking on cell phones had difficulty responding to challenging situations.

Driving while talking on a cell phone is now known to be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Texting while driving is even more dangerous. And while it may seem as if truckers are being targeted because Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has already banned texting by CMV drivers, it’s not just impacting you the trucker, it’s something that’s happening in a lot of states regarding four-wheelers.

No matter how you look at it, driving while distracted is not safe. Just because for years people have been doing it without much flack, that doesn’t mean that we should keep on as more and more technological advances come our way.

The cell phone companies, in my opinion, should have to spend a portion of profits on educating the public on the dangers of driving while talking or texting. Just as cigarettes now come with warning labels, so should phones. My hope is that one day cell phones will not operate in moving vehicles with the exception of technology that allows for calling 911. The technology exists that would not allow phones to be used while driving, but it’s another matter to mandate that it be used.

As long as LaHood holds his position at the DOT, expect cell phone use while driving to be a hot topic both for truckers and all other drivers and I hope that whoever comes along behind him has the same passion that he does to keep drivers from using cell phones whether they drive a pickup truck or a tractor-trailer.

Barb Kampbell of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at


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