JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the dangers of talking on a cell phone while driving.
The reporter is Angie Crouch from the program “SoCal Connected,” produced by KCET Los Angeles.
ANGIE CROUCH: For most of his life, Austin Barker was an adventurer.
AUSTIN BARKER, accident victim: I used to travel a lot, especially to Mexico and Central America and South America to scuba dive. And I was heavy into motorcycle riding. That was my life. And I enjoyed that part of my life 110 percent. That’s — that’s what I enjoyed doing.
You got me?
WOMAN: Got you.
ANGIE CROUCH: This is Barker today.
AUSTIN BARKER: I hate that I’m in this situation. I hate this chair. I wanted to so many times just push up like this and just hope my — my legs would just extend and I could just walk again. But it’s just not going to happen.
ANGIE CROUCH: In 2007, while riding his motorcycle, Barker was hit from behind by a driver. Although she denies it, according to the police report, that motorist was talking on her cell phone. The accident shattered Barker’s ribs, sending pieces of bone slicing through his spinal column.
Barker believes if the other driver hadn’t been distracted by her phone conversation, he wouldn’t be in this chair today.
WOMAN: Watch out for this bump.
AUSTIN BARKER: Yes.
People get on the phone, they start talking and yacking away, and they really don’t give any concern to other people. And what can happen to other people is exactly what happened to me.
RICHARD QUINTERO, California Highway Patrol: You know, using a cell phone is the number-one cause of collisions for inattentive drivers.
ANGIE CROUCH: Although California outlawed the use of handheld phones while driving in 2008, CHP Officer Richard Quintero says he stills sees too many drivers holding a cell phone, instead of the wheel.
Drivers ignore the law
RICHARD QUINTERO: I think we can see a lot a lot more people, a lot more motorists using their cell phones regardless of the law. And you can tell who is using the cell phone or who is distracted, simply because they are constantly braking, they are swerving in their lane, or they are going too slow.
ANGIE CROUCH: During our ride-along with him, it didn't take Officer Quintero long to spot and stop cell phone scofflaws.
RICHARD QUINTERO: The reason I pulled you over is because you were on the cell phone.
ANGIE CROUCH: Quintero says it's also common to see drivers trying to gab illegally without getting caught.
RICHARD QUINTERO: Some people try to get around the law by, instead of having a hands-free device, what they will do is, they will put their phone on speaker. And they will try to get around that by holding their hand at the their waist or just below an area where an officer can spot them.
ANGIE CROUCH: The CHP has issued over 138,000 citations to people breaking the cell phone law.
RICHARD QUINTERO: Sir, the reason I pulled you over is because you were on your cell phone.
ANGIE CROUCH: Drivers only pay $20 for their first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. And, unlike a DUI conviction, drivers don't get points taken off their driving record if they violate the cell phone law.
RICHARD QUINTERO: All right, Mr. Jaron, I'm just going to give you a verbal warning, OK?
AUSTIN BARKER: The fines, the way they're set up now, are just a joke.
ANGIE CROUCH: Traffic safety activists applaud recent efforts by the federal government to highlight the risks of driving while distracted, but many believe, in the past, Washington actually hid the dangers of using cell phones behind the wheel.
They point to long-withheld National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies from 2003 that just came to light this year. The studies report that cell phone use in automobiles cause nearly 1,000 fatalities and 240,000 accidents a year in the United States.
The findings also showed negligible differences in safety between using hands-free phones, like those still legal in California, and handheld devices. The reason? It's the cell phone conversation itself, not whether the driver holds the phone, that's the real danger.
Even hands-free talking distracts
ENRIQUE MAR, driver safety consultant: This guy is going to be aggressive.
ANGIE CROUCH: Oh, my God.
ANGIE CROUCH: To understand how cell phones affect driver behavior, we met Enrique Mar. He's a driver safety consultant and he owns a company that builds driving simulators.
After getting the hang of driving this virtual road, I started taking calls.
Hello. It's Angie.
First, with the illegal hand-to-phone method.
Yes, not as easy as I thought.
OK, so what happened? What did I do wrong?
ENRIQUE MAR: The beginning of the call was good. You were perceptive to the dangers, but then you got comfortable in the cell phone conversation. Your mind wandered, and you had an accident.
ANGIE CROUCH: Is that pretty typical?
ENRIQUE MAR: Typical. Typical.
ANGIE CROUCH: Although my driving was better when I talked on my hands-free device...
Hello. It's Angie.
... I still was far from a model motorist.
Trying to drive and talk on the phone at the same time.
ENRIQUE MAR: As you activate your hands-free, you have a tendency to start swerving. As soon as you receive a phone call, we do see a change in your driving habits.
If I was a police officer, I would have probably suspected that you were under the influence, because you were swerving that much.
ANGIE CROUCH: Under the influence of my cell phone?
ENRIQUE MAR: Correct, under the influence of your cell phone.
ANGIE CROUCH: Science seems to back this up.
Using MRI scans, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that motorists who drove while on the phone showed a sharp decline in activity in the brain's parietal lobe, a region associated with driving attention and skill.
Although Enrique Mar loves his cars, the more exotic and faster, the better, he says he has sworn off using cell phones entirely while he's behind the wheel.
ENRIQUE MAR: In my particular case, I see the cause and effect of -- of driving and using a cell phone. So, therefore, I don't use a cell phone while I'm driving.
ANGIE CROUCH: As for Austin Barker, he's turned his wheelchair into a rolling protest against cell phones while driving.
AUSTIN BARKER: People just need to understand that on the other end of that phone is the possibility of you causing a horrific accident and taking somebody's brother, sister, mother, father, cousin away from them.
And people just don't understand that. They just -- they just don't get it, until it actually happens to them.
ANGIE CROUCH: Although some safety advocates favor a ban on both handheld and hands-free calling from the car, that idea is currently considered a political non-starter in California.