Decades after Chicago debuted car phones to the world, area continues to strengthen ban to reduce Chicago car accidents

Complete with a vintage photo of the 1983 debut of a car phone in a Chrysler parked before the media at Solider Field, The New York Times has published an exhaustive look at the dangers of driver distraction caused by cell phones.

In that call, hundreds of members of the media gathered at Soldier Field to watch an executive from Ameritech, the regional phone company that sponsored the event, use a car phone in a Chrysler convertible to phone a great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, who was living in Germany.

Since then, the City of Chicago and the state of Illinois have become leaders in banning text messaging and cell phone use by drivers. Drivers have been forbidden from using hand-held cell phones in the City of Chicago since 2005 and a new law that takes effect Jan. 1 will make it illegal in Illinois to text message while driving and forbids the use of cell phones in school or construction zones, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

However, as the Chicago car accident attorneys at Abels and Annes pointed out on our Chicago Car Accident Lawyers blog in August, Illinois was one of fewer than 10 states to pass such a law last year out of the more than 170 bills introduced nationwide, according to a separate report in The New York Times.

Despite the mounting evidence of the dangers of cell phone use while driving, and more recently of text messaging behind the wheel, The Times reports the mobile phone industry built a $150 billion business in the United States largely by winning over drivers.

In fact, early ad campaigns called them car phones and even featured executives bragging about dictating to their secretary while driving at 55 mph.

By 2007, the federal government estimated that 11 percent of drivers were talking on their phones at any given time. Seven years ago, researchers at Harvard estimated drivers using cell phones were causing more than 2,500 fatal crashes a year and more than 500,000 injury accidents.

In part because of the inherent dangers of text messaging, the Wireless Association, the industry trade group, supports bans on text messaging and no longer opposes banning the use of cell phones while driving, which have been adopted in a number of cities, including Chicago.

“This was never something we anticipated,” said Steve Largent, spokesman for the group, adding that distracted driving is a growing threat now that more than 90 percent of Americans have cellphones. “The reality of distracted driving has become more apparent to all of us.”

Safety advocates argue cell phone makers and service providers have paid little more than lip service to the dangers while producing increasingly complicated devices many motorists are using behind the wheel.

In late 1985, wireless companies had 340,000 customers. Only 10 years later, as the price of phones fell sharply, there were almost 34 million. Revenue for wireless service providers was soaring – to $16 billion in 1995 from $354 million in 1985. The industry had revenue of $148 billion in 2008, according to The Times report.

There were red flags as early as 1984, when AAA urged drivers to park before using their phones. Studies by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 1992 and the Canadian Ministry of Health in 1997 began to solidify the risk.

“This relative risk is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit,” researchers wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine. They said hands-free devices were no safer than hand-held phones because of the distraction that comes from focusing on a conversation, not the road.

Recently, the University of Utah showed drivers using cell phones face a four times greater risk of a crash.

“It’s been a very consistent picture,” said Chris Monk, a researcher for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which conducted an exhaustive study in 2005. “Frankly, I get a little annoyed that we continue to see studies that investigate the effects of cellphone use on driving, because they all show the same thing, whether you’re talking hands-free or not.”

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or killed in an accident, the Chicago car accident lawyers at Abels & Annes offer free appointments to discuss your rights. Call (866) 99-ABELS. There is no fee unless you win.

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