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Beaufort Mayor George O'Kelley has proposed bans on text messaging and handheld cell phone use while driving. But at least one South Carolina researcher said the main danger associated with cell phone use while driving would not be eliminated by the bans.
An ordinance O'Kelley drafted this month would establish a fine of up to $50 for drivers caught texting or talking on a handheld phone. The violation would be considered a "secondary offense," meaning a driver could be fined only if that person committed another violation or was stopped at a checkpoint.
The violation would be a non-criminal offense and would not affect a person's driver's license points.
"We're never going to stop bad driving or reckless driving by ordinance," O'Kelley said Monday. "But if it'll save one person from having a wreck, it's worth it."
The proposed ban on text messaging is supported by several studies, including one published in January by researchers at Clemson University. Participants in the study operated a driving simulator on a curvy road while text messaging, using an MP3 player or talking on a cell phone.
Results showed that drivers who text messaged or used an MP3 player left their lane 10 percent more often than drivers who did not use those devices. Talking on a cell phone did not cause drivers to leave their lanes, though the researchers noted cell phone use might reduce reaction time, which was not measured in the study.
Amit Almor, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, said a driver talking on a cell phone and a driver who is legally drunk are equally impaired. And while he recommended using a hands-free system to reduce the safety hazard, he said it does not address the main problem.
"There is certainly some advantage to having hands-free phones in cars, but the main risk posed by using a phone while driving, I think, is not really about the manual handling of the handset -- it's about attention," he said. "That attention is grabbed by the conversation rather than anything having to do with the instrument itself."
Almor tested the effects of conversation on 47 people who were asked to complete visual tasks (detecting shapes on a monitor or using a computer mouse to track a moving target on a monitor) while listening to and responding to pre-recorded narratives.
Data from the study, which was published in the journal Experimental Psychology, showed participants were four times more distracted while speaking or preparing to speak than they were while simply listening. Almor said the effect probably is even stronger when a person is carrying on a real conversation because people then feel the urge to contribute.
"There's some aspect about active participation in a conversation that has to do with planning what you're going to say ... that takes away from the mental resources we use when driving," he said. "I would not argue against (a ban on handheld phone use), but I would say it's not a satisfactory, complete solution to the risk that talking while driving poses."
O'Kelley, however, said he would not support a ban on hands-free cell phone use.
"I don't think that's a problem. That's like talking to someone who's sitting beside you," he said. "You can keep your eyes on the road, and you don't have to mash numbers."
Tom Crosby, president of AAA Carolinas' Motor Club Foundation for Traffic Safety, agreed with O'Kelley that, while far from perfect, hands-free cell phone use is better than using a traditional cell phone.
"Most studies have shown that it is the conversation that is the most distracting (part of using a cell phone)," he said. "The problem is when you're holding a cell phone in one hand, you should have both hands on the wheel. If an emergency situation occurs, it's very difficult to throw the cell phone down and grab the wheel with both hands."