A Car, A Call And A Terrible Crash

In the wee hours of Sunday, April 29, Chad Renegar was driving supermodel Niki Taylor and another friend home from a night on the town when his cell phone rang. Reflexively, Renegar lunged for the phone, taking his eyes off the road, he says, for just a few seconds. That's all it took for his 1993 Nissan Maxima to jump the curb and plow straight into a utility pole. Shaken, the three got out of the car and Renegar dialed for help. "Are you injured?" asked the 911 operator. "Yeah, all three of us are injured," answered Renegar, but he was playing it safe. They'd been wearing seat belts and, aside from a few minor cuts, it seemed as if they had escaped serious injury. Taylor's world-famous visage, once on the cover of six magazines in a single month, didn't have a scratch. By the time police arrived, though, the blond swimsuit model was in terrible pain. Emergency-room doctors quickly determined that Taylor was suffering from massive internal injuries. A few days later, a penitent Renegar spoke to a morning news show about the accident, saying he had learned a lesson about driving while distracted. "Nothing on that phone that can be nearly as important as what's going on in front of you," he said.

As the tabloid media scrambled for news of Taylor's condition, her near-fatal accident focused national attention on a serious and growing problem on our highways--people who talk on the phone while they drive. Police, state legislators and local activists say that something must be done. And a handful of counties and municipalities have already enacted ordinances limiting the use of cell phones for drivers and at least 40 states are considering similar bills. But the powerful cell-phone lobby is battling back, stressing public education over a new generation of anti-cell-phone laws. Automobile insurers say they, too, recognize the danger and are quietly discussing whether to add a surcharge on insurance premiums for drivers who use cell phones. Meanwhile, mobile-phone companies are promoting so-called hands-free devices aimed at making cell-phone users safer drivers. This technology is already required by law in Italy, Brazil and Denmark; Portugal, Israel and Japan have banned cell phones for drivers outright. "I don't think there is any question that cell phones can be a distraction," said Andrea Linskey, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless.

Although more than 115 million Americans have purchased cell phones since they became popular 10 years ago--and a full 80 percent of cell-phone users say they talk while driving--good numbers on how many car accidents are caused by cell phones are hard to come by. In most states, accident reports filed by the police don't reflect whether cell phones played a role. The medical community has provided the most sound, and most damning, statistics. A 1997 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the collision rates for drivers using handheld cell phones were roughly the same as for drivers who were legally drunk. This week a House subcommittee will hold hearings on cell phones and cars. "Everybody has a story about someone more involved with his phone than with his driving," said Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri, who will help run the hearings. "My question is, just how pervasive is this?"

Elementary-school teacher Patti Pena says she doesn't need a congressional hearing to tell her there's a problem. Two years ago she was driving her toddler, Morgan Lee, to a farm near their suburban Philadelphia home when she was broadsided by another vehicle. Morgan Lee was fatally injured, and Pena says her grief turned to rage when she learned that the driver had been talking on his handheld cell phone. She began doing research, she says. "I found that cell-phone- related car accidents affected hundreds and hundreds of people." She tracked down victims and their families in New Jersey, Missouri, Texas, Georgia and Maryland. Using Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as her example, Pena launched Advocates for Cell Phone Safety. She lobbied for a statewide ban on handheld phones. Though the bill died last year, her fight caught the attention of local lawmakers. "Our constituents want something done," says Connecticut state Rep. Richard Roy, whose sister was seriously injured in a cell-phone-related car accident. He is sponsoring a bill that requires Connecticut drivers to use the hands-free devices.

Cell-phone-industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler sympathizes with Pena and Roy but says states should enforce reckless-driving laws rather than legislate cell-phone use. He says that drivers with cell phones actually save lives by summoning emergency services when they see accidents on the road. To placate critics, the wireless industry has launched a $12 million public-education campaign on drive-time radio. But change is in the air. Last summer mobile-phone behemoth Verizon Wireless broke ranks and signaled it would support laws requiring hands-free devices like headphones, earpieces, voice-activated dialers and ports that turn cell phones into speakerphones. Advocates say it's a start but point to studies that show that talking, not dialing, contributes to car accidents. Or as Pena puts it: "It's not where your hands are, it's where your head is." She's taking on the new generation of in-car devices that allows drivers to read maps, get e-mail and even stock quotes--all while speeding down the highway. Auto insurers are watching these developments closely. For them, the equation is simple: distracted drivers are unsafe, and those who insist on multitasking behind the wheel will pay higher premiums than those who don't.

Late last week Taylor remained in critical condition. Her family and fans agree that for Taylor, the cost of riding with a distracted driver was simply too high.