The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Cell phone ban affects SMU drivers

Chances are if Elizabeth Wishnatzki is in her car, she is talking on her cell phone. A resident of Uptown, she prefers taking the back roads to avoid traffic when driving to attend classes at SMU.

The problem for Wishnatzki is that the Travis Street route she prefers contains many school zones, now decorated with signs stating that cell phone use there is forbidden. Even though use of such devices is illegal in designated areas, it does not stop drivers from using them.

“On my way to and from school is one of the only times I have quiet time to call long-distance family and friends, and I’m not going to just call and hang up depending on whether or not I’m in a school zone; that just seems so ridiculous,” Wishnatzki said.

Wishnatzki is not the only student who objects to the new cell phone laws that prohibit use in Dallas school zones.

Many SMU students say they plan to observe the laws at their own convenience, since they assume their chances of getting a ticket are low. However, University Park Police have already issued 319 tickets since the law went into effect in late January, according to Lita Snellgrove, a Crime Prevention Officer of the University Park Police Department.

In December 2007, University Park City Council approved a ban on handheld cell phone use in its school zones in the Highland Park Independent School District. The district’s school zones border the SMU campus, and the law must be observed Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“If I need to make a call and I see I’m in a school zone, I’ll wait.” Senior Sean Stevens said. “But if I’m already on a call, I’m not going to end it just because I see a school zone sign and no cops.”

Even if there are no visible cops in the school zones, students may want to think twice about disobeying the law. Violators can receive a $200 ticket for each offense.

University Park passed the first cell phone law in its school district, shortly followed by Flower Mound and Trophy Club. The Dallas City Council unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting handheld cell phone use in all of its 651 school zones during school hours.

“When I have people in my car, they’re usually louder, more animated and more distracting to me than any person on the phone could ever be,” junior Erin Devlin said. “If they’re going to ban cell phones, they might as well ban passengers while they’re at it.”

The Dallas City Council considered the law for the same reason University Park decided to ban handheld cell phones in its school zones: safety for children. The University Park ordinance states, “The safety of traveling school-aged children is of paramount importance to the city,” and drivers who use cell phones create a danger to the children in school zones.

A 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah found that motorists who talk on cell phones are just as impaired as intoxicated drivers. Add in the factor of a school zone, and a driver on his or her cell phone is just as likely to harm a child crossing the street as would any drunk driver.

“Anytime drivers in our school zones are forced to pay more attention to our kids is a step in the right direction,” Highland Park Superintendent Dr. Cathy Brice said. “We appreciate the Council for thinking of our kids and taking the risk. We hope officers will enforce the law and enhance our school zone safety.”

Drivers can legally use hands-free wireless devices to make a call in a school zone, but they cannot create, read or send text messages. Exceptions to the law can be argued in court if a call was made “regarding an emergency situation.”

Emergency situation or not, many student drivers will continue to use their cell phones in school zones. Students do not think they pose a serious threat to the road while talking on the phone and driving.

“I don’t really see the difference between talking on the phone and changing the radio station,” Wishnatzki said. “Cell phones aren’t the only thing that can distract you while driving.”

Groundbreaking studies continue to sort out the differences between risks involving cell-phone use while driving versus other distractions. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study in April 2006 that found that almost 80 percent of crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds of the event.

The study found the most common distraction to be the use of cell phones, followed by drowsiness. However, the study suggests that cell-phone use is not the cause for the majority of crashes even though it is a common distraction. For example, drivers who reached for a moving object such as a falling cup increased the risk of a crash by nine times, while talking or listening on a cell phone only increased the risk by 1.3 times.

Proponents of cell-phone bans feel that the distractions associated with cell-phone use while driving are more serious than other distractions. They believe that laws should be considered when it comes to putting other people’s lives in danger, such as children in school zones. Opponents of cell-phone restrictions think drivers are more easily distracted by other common activities, such as talking to the person in the passenger seat.

The Dallas ordinance will go into effect June 1, at the end of the current school year to give time for the city to install notification signs in each school zone, according to Dallas City Councilwoman Dr. Elba Garcia. The school-zone speed-limit signs in the Highland Park Independent School District currently feature a second sign to warn drivers of the use of cell phones.

“The primary purpose of the law was to protect the children,” Snellgrove said. “Drivers are immediately warned when they enter our school zones, and there is no reason they should not obey the law.”

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