Cellular Industry Gives Big Tobacco a Run for Its Money

cellad.jpgWestern Union cellphone ad from 1984. Image via NYT

Concerns
arose not long after it hit the market. External studies seemed to
confirm what industry insiders feared: The product could pose a public
health risk. But as sales soared, whistleblowers who didn’t leave their
jobs were forced to keep quiet. Companies maintained a posture of
denial as a mountain of damning evidence, some of it from their own
investigations, kept growing. Bowing to pressure, some consented to
warning labels and other notices, but still insisted that claims of
product-related injuries and deaths remained unproven.

It’s a familiar story. And in the latest installment of
its "Driven to Distraction" series, the NY Times lays out in detail how,
in this case, it was the mobile phone industry that continued to market its product
for use in a manner long believed to be hazardous to its customers and
the population at large. The result: As far back as seven years ago,
the Times reports, "drivers using cellphones were causing 2,600 fatal
crashes a year in the United States and 570,000 accidents that resulted
in a range of injuries, from minor to serious." Now a lawsuit, among
the first of its kind, has been filed against Samsung and Sprint Nextel
by a woman whose mother was killed by a distracted driver in Oklahoma City in 2008.

Of
course a key issue is the line between provider and motorist
responsibility. The driver in this case, who pleaded to misdemeanor
negligent homicide, does not blame the cellular industry. "It’s our
choice if we’re going to talk on the cellphone while driving or walking
down the street or in the office," he said. "The cellphone companies
don’t say you should talk on the phone and drive."

Actually, they do — and, as the Times reveals, they always have.
It’s certainly true that "the mobile device has moved well beyond its
origins as a car phone," to paraphrase industry reps, but cellphone
manufacturers and sellers are advertising the benefits of talking while
driving to this day, even as they inch toward acknowledgment of the inherent dangers.

The
CTIA, the industry’s trade group, supports legislation banning texting
while driving. It has also changed its stance on legislation to ban
talking on phones while driving – for years, it opposed such laws; now
it is neutral.

"This was never something we anticipated,"
said Mr. [Steve] Largent, head of the CTIA, 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."

This supposed
revelation comes nearly 50 years and thousands of casualties after
Motorola developer Martin Cooper testified of the earliest mobile
phones: "There should be a lock on the dial so that you couldn’t dial
while driving."