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.
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-activate