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Talk about distractions while driving

Acellphone conversation. A chorus of honking. A green light. Oh, the humiliation.

It turns out that I, who so roundly curses cellphone yakkers who mess up in traffic, am no better. My usual policy in the car is to turn the phone off and/or stash it, but I'd left it on, and it was an "important" call, and I rationalized that I wasn't driving, exactly, I was sitting at a red light. How bad is that?

Using the cellphone while driving is a little like pornography. It's readily available, it's tempting, and most people think that while it might be harmful to some, it's never hurt them any.

The loophole in the Oregon law against talking on hand-held devices while driving — telling a judge it was a work-related call — goes away today. And TWD — texting while driving — is banned. But jabbering away on cellphones with hands-free attachments is still OK if you're 18 or older, as if it is clearly safer than using a hand-held phone.

When the National Transportation Safety Board proposed that all cellphone use while driving be banned, the big metro paper to the north ran an editorial that summed up a lot of people's resistance. While it didn't advocate texting while driving, it called suggestions for a total ban "too much too soon" and urged legislators to tread slowly.

The piece listed three reasons Oregon should dawdle. The first was that banning hands-free palaver would be hard to enforce. How can a traffic cop tell whether you're talking to a friend or singing along with the radio? That's a good question, but surely no reason for inaction.

The second was, how do we know listening to the radio isn't as dangerous as talking on the phone? Give us a break. Nobody believes this. The third was that it makes little difference if your device is hands-free. That's true, but again, hardly a reason for inaction.

Oregon's law pretends that hands-free devices are safe. But the problem isn't the hands. It's the brain. Studies at Carnegie Mellon University show that more than a third of the brain activity used in driving is stolen by listening to a cellphone. And studies at the University of Utah have shown that none of us actually multi-tasks, much as we like to think we do. What you're really doing when you think you're focusing on two things at once is switching your attention from one to another and back, quickly. But not quickly enough to text while driving.

As you take your eyes off the road for five seconds (the average time of texters in studies) at 65 mph, your car will travel more than the length of a football field.

The facts are clear. Using a cellphone while driving increases your chance of an accident 400 percent. But a texting driver is 2,300 percent more likely to get in a wreck.

It's estimated that 11 percent of drivers are talking on their phones at any given time. A Harvard report found that 2,600 traffic deaths and 570,000 injury accidents are caused each year by drivers using cellphones. A 2011 study by Nationwide Mutual Insurance found that 19 percent of all drivers — and 37 percent of drivers between the ages of 18 and 27 — say they text behind the wheel.

In a 2011 study, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 94 percent of drivers said texting or emailing while driving is unacceptable, and 87 percent support laws against it. Yet more than a third admitted to doing it in the previous 30 days.

Some people like to say you can't legislate stupid. And car makers are competing to see who can put out the most lavish infotainment systems in cars.

But perceptions of what's OK do change. Back in the day, car manufacturers said that requiring seat belts was an intrusion on people's rights. In the time of TV's "Mad Men," it was common to wink at the fellow who had a few martinis after work and one for the road before careening home in the family De Soto.

And driving while using the cellphone may be even worse than drunken driving. If you're a fan of TV's "Mythbusters," you may recall the episode in which hosts Adam Savage and Kari Byron drove a racing-school course in California while sober, again talking on a cellphone and again after a few beers. Drinking and driving was worse than sober.

No surprise there. But the cellphone was worse — by a large margin — than driving with an alcohol buzz. And that was just talking, not texting.

Oregon is on the right track but needs to go further. How about banning all cellphone use while driving for everybody except emergency responders? In the meantime, can we please just turn off the phone?

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.