Cellular safety:help or hindrance?

If you drive much, odds are you’ve seen a car swerve dangerously close to a nearby lane, only to pass the car moments later and see the driver talking on a cell phone. If you’re the parent of a teenager headed on a road trip, you’ve likely reminded them, “Bring your cell phone with, just in case you run into any trouble.”

The first scenario is clearly a safety hazard; the second, a safety tool. As cell phone usage soars — 740 million new cell phones will be sold worldwide in 2005 according to industry sources — the debate rages on regarding their influence on safety.

Cell phone usage in the car, on the road, emerges as the hottest safety issue. In 2002, politicians across the United States proposed more than 100 bills concerning cell phone use in cars. New York became the first state to pass a law banning hand held cell phone use while driving. Ten other states have followed suit in years since, passing laws of various degrees regulating cell phone use while driving.

Minnesota has no such legislation, and cell phone-related accidents are becoming an increasingly large concern. In 2002, “driver inattention or distraction” was listed as the cause in 30,000 accident reports filed by Minnesota police officers.

“There is no way to know how many of those cases can be attributed to cell phones,” said Allen Rogers, research analyst in the traffic division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

What is clear, Rogers said, is that cell phones are tremendously distracting and can easily take the driver’s attention away for the crucial several seconds that can cause an accident.

The positive

On the flip side, cell phones can be a great safety tool.

Judie and Rick Lindemeier of Chaska sleep much easier knowing that if any of their four children has car problems, each has a cell phone to call for help. In fact, safety on the road was the motivation for the Lindemeiers to get phones for their youngest two, Kelsey, 17, and Adam, 16.

“I wanted to know that they had a way to reach me and let me know where they were if they had any problems,” Judie said. “I feel a whole lot better with them having a cell phone.”

This spring, Presbyterian Homes in Inver Grove Heights, a retirement community, instated a new policy: anytime staff take residents on an outing, they have to bring a cell phone with them.

“This way if anything would happen to any of our residents at all, staff can call for help immediately,” said Mary Wiens, clinical administrator at Presbyterian Homes. “I would hate to find out that something serious happened after the fact, when they come back from their outing two hours later.”

Many child care centers are adopting the same policy.

“We take a cell phone with us everytime we leave the main room,” said Shirley Beyer, director of Messiah Preschool in Mounds View.

Staff members carry emergency cards with them, so they can call children’s emergency contacts to immediately find out crucial information. Most parents provide a cell phone number on their contact information, so precious time is saved in finding out about problems, such as possible allergic reactions, Beyer said.

“Having a cell phone with us gives parents the assurance that the well-being of the children is our first and immediate concern,” Beyer said. “We want to make sure that if we ever need to use it quicky in an emergency it’s there .”

From elderly to elementary, cell phones provide more than just peace of mind. The phones are providing valuable help to law enforcement, serving as extra eyes for police officers.

“This is your modern-day way of communicating ‘Help!’ and getting assistance, or reporting suspicious behavior,” said Maplewood Police Sgt. Scott Steffen. Countless times people on cell phones have reported crimes in progress or even followed drunk drivers to give their location to police, Steffen said.

Steffen remembers an incident two winters ago when a man called the police from his cell phone to report he was floating down the Mississippi River on a chunk of ice that had broken free.

Using the signals and satellites that wireless companies use to track cell phones, police were able to locate the man. It turned out he was not on the river at all — he was in his home, hallucinating. With wireless technology, police were able to find the man and get him medical assistance.

Thus, while cell phones can be perceived as a health hazard on the road, they also serve as a significant safety tool. It all depends on how they’re used.

“Overall, cell phones have truly improved safety a lot,” Steffen said. “Whether you’re stranded on the freeway during a storm, or your car breaks down in the middle of the night, or you witness a crime, they can really help.”