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June 25, 2013 12:06 PM
LARRY. P. VELLEQUETTE

Should a cellphone in a car take two hands to operate?

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Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler for Automotive News.

I've spent a great deal of time recently -- largely during my two-hour daily commute -- pondering the problem of people using cellphones while driving.

It's a problem because it's far too easy to spot drivers using hand-held cellphones on the highway. You see, when they aren't weaving or changing their speed for no apparent reason, they are driving in other ways that show just how oblivious they are to their fellow motorists.

I think everyone recognizes what's going on here, and that it has to stop. But regulators have focused their energies on automakers, the wrong targets if they want to effect change.

You see, it's not the cars that need to change -- it's the cellphones.

Here's what I propose: Any time a cellphone is moving faster than 35 mph, it will operate only via a remote connection, such as a car's Bluetooth system, or if both of the user's hands remain touching the handset.

The idea is to eliminate one-handed drivers and neck pinchers -- those who trap the cellphone between a hunched shoulder and an ear -- as the motorists careen down the highway, oblivious to the danger they present.

I hope -- no, I pray -- that a driver who can't talk on the phone unless both hands are on the device would keep hands on the wheel and, if necessary, pull over to take a call. Meanwhile, people riding public transit and passengers in private vehicles could still use their devices in motion faster than 35 mph as long as both hands remain on the device.

I make an exception here for functionality that's integrated into the vehicle, and that's on purpose.

I realize that drivers can still be distracted while carrying on a conversation through their car audio systems, but I don't think that is any more distracting than speaking to another passenger in the vehicle.

Automakers have struggled for the past decade to strike a balance between safety and the added benefits that cellphones bring to vehicles. They will continue to do so.

Consumers constantly push for more functionality and seamless integration between hand-held computers and vehicles. Just check the used-car values to see how much consumers value cars with integrated telematics over those without.

The late, great George Carlin once pointed out that "anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac." My daily drives have allowed me to adopt a similar moniker for cellphone users -- not one I care to share in a family setting.

But I hope that someday, I'll no longer be able to spot the distracted drivers dangerously gabbing away on their cellphones. Then all I'll have to worry about are the idiots blocking my lane and the maniacs climbing up my bumper.

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