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The Sunday TimesPlus

16th March 1997



Don't phone while driving

By Arshad M.Hadjirin

Today, Sri Lanka embraces all forms of modern technology. Whether they are suited to our way of living or not, is a different story.

The recent craze or 'nuisance' as some call it, is the use of cellular phones whilst driving. The Traffic Division of the Police imposed a complete ban on such usage sometime ago, but this has only fallen on the deaf ears of drivers, who, nevertheless seem to have no trouble taking their incoming calls on cellular phones while at the wheel. It is a common sight today to see drivers, cradling phones whilst negotiating traffic. Pedestrians and other motorists are thus, increasingly at risk.

Colombo, now with four cellular phone companies, is flooded with cellphones and more people are encouraged to buy them, through various slash-priced packages. The cell phone, one could argue, is the ideal mode of mobile communication, especially when one is on the move, even while driving. But when there is a police order to refrain from using cellulars whilst driving, users should exercise more caution.

Motor vehicle accidents on Lankan roads have always been high and continue to escalate with the addition of each vehicle. H.S. Gunawardene of Rajagiriya in a hard hitting letter to the police said that he was nearly knocked down by a driver using a cellular phone while walking down a pedestrian crossing recently. The traffic police receive news of many such incidents every day and has now beefed up laws relating to the use of cellular phones at the wheel of a vehicle.SSP Traffic, Cammillus Abey-goonawardene speaking to ' The Sunday Times' on this issue, said that they will do everything possible to nab drivers using cellular phones. "Every month there are over 25 detections, which is only a fraction of the offenders," he said.The Motor Traffic Act stipulates that both hands of a driver should always be on the wheel, except during changing of gears or switching on or off an essential instrument which keeps a vehicle running. Another amended law specifically prohibits the use cellular phones or other communications equipment while driving.Mr. Abeygoona-wardene said that an offender could be charged under any of these laws. "They are also liable for a spot fine of Rs. 150," he said and added that otherwise the offenders could be taken to courts.He said that driving is a full time activity which requires full concentration of the drivers. Using a cellular diminishes one's concentration.

A study based in Canada released last month found cell phone users four to five times more likely to get into traffic accidents than drivers who do not use them. This situation was compared with the probability of accidents while driving drunk. United States scientists said that the research was the first evidence that use of cellulars in vehicles contributes to roadway collisions.

The Toronto researchers said that the risk is equal to the hazard associated with driving when blood alcohol level is at the legally permitted limit.

The findings of the study revealed that :

1. The risk of an accident was nearly five times higher than normal when a person was on the telephone one to five minutes before an accident. The typical call in the study lasted around two and half minutes.

2. The collision rate was four times higher than expected when the call was made less than 15 minutes before the accident.

3. Only after the driver had been off the phone for more than 15 minutes did the risk seem to dissipate.

4. Younger and older drivers with cell phones faced essentially the same risk.5. Persons with many years of experience in using a cellular telephone still had a significant increase in the risk.Telecom sources estimate that nearly 100,000 citizens in Sri Lanka use cellular phones, of which, cell phone companies say, at least eighty per cent are executives, using vehicles. SSP Abey-goonawardene said he has been campaigning to eradicate this offence and drafted several slogans and stickers. "With one hand on the wheel and the other on the cell, you are driving to hell," goes one of the slogans.Mr. Abeygoona-wardene agrees that cellular phones is a basic facility, "Drivers needing to make a phone call could pull their vehicles on to a side or ask a fellow passenger to answer the call," he says. But drivers argue that it is not always possible to pull over promptly, especially when in the midst of traffic. Phone companies were on the defensive on this issue, but conceded that they do not advise their customers against using the cell phone whilst driving. The police department, however, expects the cellular companies to do some counselling.A representative for Call-Link told 'The Sunday Times' that they would rather prefer their drivers using a hand free set - with a built in mike inside the vehicles. "This attachment could cost a further Rs. 7000 to 8000, but it could prevent the death of somebody," said the executive.

A spokesman for Mobitel said that though their brochures for telephones carry a snippet warning consumers not to use cell phones during driving, it is often neglected. He said the company strongly urges all their users to pull their vehicles onto a side before beginning a conversation on the phone.Mr Abeygoona-wardene reiterates it, "don't' phone if you are driving; don't drive if you are phoning." But one wonders how many users will heed his advice.

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