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Draw the line at motorists using cell phones

Here's a bit of irony for you. On Friday, a woman named Deborah Hersman was behind the wheel when her car was rear-ended. The other driver admitted he was "messing with" his iPod at the time of the crash.

Hersman probably wasn't surprised. She's the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which two days earlier had recommended a nationwide ban on personal electronic devices by drivers.

No texting. No making or receiving calls. No surfing the Internet. No checking email. The NTSB even wants hands-free phones to be prohibited, because studies have consistently demonstrated that they are just as distracting to drivers as traditional cellphones.

This recommendation hasn't been well-received — in fact, the NTSB is taking a lot of heat over it. USA Today published an editorial declaring that such a ban would be unenforceable in our tech-addicted society, and also went down the familiar road of pointing out we can't outlaw everything that distracts drivers. "Is it time to ban food in cars? Dogs? Children? Where do you draw the line?"

We'd suggest, however, that difficulty in deciding where to draw a line doesn't absolve us from the responsibility of at least trying to draw it. After all, our legal and democratic systems are dotted with "lines" that at some point seemed arbitrary and baseless, yet they have now become accepted facts of life. We vote at age 18, but can't drink until we're 21. We have specific speed limits on freeways, two-lane highways and residential neighborhoods. At .08 blood-alcohol level, you're legally drunk. An hourly employee who clocks more than 40 hours is entitled to overtime pay.

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Lines can and must be drawn, which is why we support the NTSB recommendation for a nationwide ban on use of personal electronic devices by drivers.

Yes, our phone addiction would be difficult to break. Yes, police officers often will have better things to do than trying to determine whether someone is dialing while driving. Yes, drivers can also be distracted when they eat behind the wheel or try to mediate back-seat quarrels, yet no one is talking about a ban on drive-thru food or requiring a sound-proof partition between drivers and their children. And yes, of the roughly 3,000 fatalities related to distracted driving each year, only a fraction are related to use of a cellphone.

But this is a distraction that can be effectively regulated, if we're willing to go through an unpleasant period of adjustment.

It's time to admit that the breathtaking pace of advancements in communications technology has outstripped the rules that govern when, where and how we use that technology. To put it another way, people have grown accustomed to "overdriving their headlights" on the information superhighway, and they don't like the idea of having to slow down — or in this case, having to pull over — to make a phone call. 

The difficult-yet-correct choice will require us to give up some freedoms that we currently enjoy. Americans usually don't like to do that, but a national poll conducted in the wake of the NTSB announcement found that 49 percent of respondents support a total ban, while just 44 percent oppose it.

Still, unless Congress gets involved, we suspect that some states will never sign on to a total ban. Fifteen states, after all, still haven't banned texting while driving — which we find utterly ridiculous.

Nine states, including New York, New Jersey and California, have banned the use of hand-held phones while driving, but they make an exception for hands-free devices. No state has yet implemented a total ban.

If Minnesota decides to take action on this issue, it should go all-in, perhaps setting a precedent that other states will follow. We hope that some brave legislators will get the ball rolling in the right direction during the 2012 legislative session.  

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