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Making cell phones safer for cars


By Elizabeth Wasserman

(IDG) -- When supermodel Niki Taylor was gravely injured earlier this month in a car accident, people were incensed to learn that the driver of the car was reaching for his cell phone when he hit a utility pole. There oughta be a law, many said.

It's already happening. Three states have cell phone laws on the books, including California, which requires rental cars that come with cell phones to include information about how to use the phones safely. Bills have been introduced in 40 state legislatures to limit cell phone use behind the wheel. Dozens of municipalities have passed or are considering some sort of law regulating the use of handheld phones while driving a car. Nearly two dozen countries around the world -- including Germany, Great Britain, Israel and South Africa -- have laws regulating cell phone use behind the wheel.

At this point there's no movement in Washington toward a federal law. At a congressional hearing last Wednesday on driver distractions, House leaders noted that states usually set their own laws of the road. National Highway Safety Administration associate Robert L. Shelton told a House transportation subcommittee that while there's insufficient data to support national regulations, cell phones still have become "a significant highway safety concern." The NHTSA estimates driver inattention of all sorts causes 20 percent to 30 percent of the 6.3 million accidents reported last year.

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A new study, meanwhile, suggests handheld devices aren't as big a problem as the legislative activity suggests. The study, released last week by the American Automobile Association, shows that cell phones are less likely to cause an accident than are other distractions, such as changing a CD, hushing a toddler or eating. Only 1.5 percent of drivers involved in 5,000 accidents between 1995 and 1999 reported being distracted by cell phones, according to the study, analyzed by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

The cellular phone and electronics industries have taken cover behind the AAA study. Until that survey, the only data available on the role of cell phones in traffic accidents came from a 1997 New England Journal of Medicine report that concluded the risk of a collision "when using a cellular telephone was four times higher than the risk when a cellular phone was not being used."

"The market, as opposed to regulations from government, will determine how best to use technology," says Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance, which has 2,300 members and is against cell phone laws. Still, the market probably won't get a chance to override state legislatures, so the industry is coming up with its own solutions -- ranging from relatively inexpensive headsets and speakerphones to voice-activated navigational systems and voice-dialing services.

Some of the large wireless services are already taking steps. AT&T Wireless is pressing cell phone makers to include "ear buds," receivers that fit into the ear and dangle a microphone, with every phone they sell. Verizon Wireless is requiring phone manufacturers to include built-in speakerphones and voice-activated dialing by 2002. That solves one part of the problem.

Voice recognition can solve the others: fumbling with keypads and scratching out commands on handheld devices. Sprint PCS already offers Voice Command, which lets callers recite the number they want to reach. OnStar, the car-based navigation system owned by General Motors, recently launched two services based on voice technology. Personal Calling lets users place calls by hitting a button and then reciting the number they want to reach. Virtual Advisor is a voice-activated Web portal that marries the telephone to the Internet to let users peruse a personalized portfolio of news, weather and sports information. It's one of a dozen or so programs that bring the Internet into the automobile with minimal distraction to the driver.

Competitors include AOL By Phone, which will charge subscribers $4.95, and TellMe Networks, which offers a toll-free number through which users can retrieve stock quotes, traffic reports, news and movie times via voice recognition. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of

Software developer MobileAria is working with Palm and Delphi Automotive, an auto partsmaker, to offer voice access to customized stock quotes, traffic reports and more over a wireless connection in the car. "We want to make that 80 minutes you spend in the car more productive and [safe]," says Steve Wollenberg, MobileAria's VP of business development.

Meanwhile, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association is mounting its own campaign against the anti-phone legislation. The association is preparing to spend $12 million in a radio ad campaign this year to educate cell phone users. One tip: Don't look up phone numbers while driving.

• Verizon
• Sprint
• AT&T

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