Reach out and touch someone: cellular phones, health, safety and reasonable regulation.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorMobydeen, Lana
Date22 June 2001

    The case is a first of its kind in Nevada, and possibly a landmark nationally: Karen Morris was charged with three felony counts of reckless driving and two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for a March 25, 2001 incident, where she allegedly caused a deadly traffic accident while talking on a cellular phone. (1) Police accounts report that Karen Morris, thirty-four, was traveling at sixty-four mph in a forty-five mph zone while talking on her cellular phone. (2) Morris ran a red light and crashed into another car, killing two people, Leona Grief, sixty-one, and her friend Marcia Nathans, sixty-five. (3) A third passenger, Elliot Nathans, forty-four, was injured. (4) Morris was let out on $100,000 bail, on two conditions: (i) she was not to have a driver's license; and, (2) she was not to drive a motor vehicle. (5)

    The sweeping use of cellular phones in today's society greatly affects all of our lives. A recent press release by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attributes some form of driver distraction as a contributing factor in twenty to thirty percent of all crashes.6 From driver inattentiveness to warnings of cancer, American society is bombarded with the risks that are associated with cellular phone use. Cellular phone safety has even been advocated for children, which prompted Disney to stop licensing the use of its characters on cellular phones. (7)

    In the midst of these fears, the U.S. government has increasingly been wary of cellular phone risks. There are recent federal bill proposals seeking to regulate the use of hand-held mobile telephones while driving. (8) Federal government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have teamed up with the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) in order to further research the health and safety implications from cellular phones. (9)

    Legislation from most of the states also reveals a serious concern for the dangers of driving while using a cellular phone. In 1999, the city of Brooklyn, Ohio, issued a ban on the use of cellular phones while driving, which was the first in the nation. (10) This was followed by the first statewide ban on hand-held cellular phones for drivers in New York. (11)

    Despite the health and safety concerns, cellular phones have been a pervasive part of everyday lives in the U.S. and abroad. For example, in Italy, Franciscan Monks were fit with new robes with special pockets that accommodate their cellular phones. (12) Not only do cellular phones help connect us to one another, but they have also been used for personal safety, for contacting loved ones, and in times of emergency. Cellular phones played a significant role in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S.. The people that were involved in this incident were no longer free to express their connection through the outside world except through means of modern communication. No longer were the airwaves used to conduct business, or corporate activity, they were used as means of conveying messages, and ensuring safety. For many, the last contact they had with relatives or loved ones was through the use of cellular phones. (13)

    There have been a variety of safety measures implemented in order to regulate cell phones, ranging from consumer advertising, to encouraging more education, and even enhancement of the cellular phone itself. For example, the CTIA lists ten tips for cell phones users to "minimize the potential for distraction." (14)

    This note seeks to address health and safety concerns associated with cellular phones as well as call for minimal regulation of cellular phones because of their beneficial nature to our society. Section II explains the origins of cellular phones and how cellular phones operate. Section III explains the health and safety risks associated with driver inattentiveness as a result of cellular phone use. Section IV of this note consists of the health and safety risks that have commonly been feared by use of cellular phones. Sections V and VI deal with the federal and state government response to the health and safety risks associated with cellular phones. Section VII is a contrast to the other sections because it deals with the positive aspects associated with cellular phone use. Section VIII examines proposed solutions to the various health and safety problems associated with cellular phones including more education, research, safety technology and programs, and enforcement of current laws regarding unsafe driving. Lastly, this note concludes with the proposal that in order to balance the health and safety risks posed by cellular phones with their use and utility, there must be minimal legislation and a focus on the proposed solutions: education, research, development of safety technology and programs, and enforcement of existing laws.

    In a nine-part discussion, this note addresses issues concerning the health and safety risks associated with the use of cellular phones, which will also include a section that focuses on the advantages of using cellular phones. It is essential to maintain cellular phones and their utility in our lifestyle for personal safety and security. Health and safety problems with cellular phones must be addressed by the least restrictive regulation possible in order to ensure the continued use and the many benefits that the cellular phone industry presents to our society.


    A cellular telephone is a wireless device that transmits messages with radio signals, and enables communication over a wide area, using a network of radio antennas and transmitters arranged in small geographical areas called "cells." (15) Cells may vary in size and number according to the network's extent. (16) Callers use a cellular telephone unit, which serves as a radio transmitter and receiver and enables the user to make or receive calls. (17) According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) these units go by a variety of names including, wireless phones, or cellular (cell) phones, mobile phones or PCS (Personal Communication Services) phones. (18) Radio waves send the call to an antenna transmitter where the call is made, and the transmitter relays the message to a mobile telephone switching office (MTSO). (19) The MTSO sends out the call to a local phone company which sends the call to the receiver or a long-distance company. (20) As you pass from one cell to another, "your call is transferred or 'handed off' to the next cell without any noticeable interruptions." (21) All devices that transmit radio signals emit radio-frequency radiation, which is electromagnetic energy emitted in the form of waves. (22) Cellular antenna opponents contend that the electromagnetic energy emitted from the antennas is harmful. (23) Also residents of cities often oppose the erection of wireless towers and antennas based on a combination of concerns including health effects of radio frequency emission as well as aesthetics. (24)

    The basic concept of cellular phones evolved in 1947, when researchers looked at mobile car phones and realized that they could increase the traffic capacity of mobile phones by using small cells with frequency reuse. (25) In response to a 1947 AT&T proposal to allocate a large number of radio-spectrum frequencies so that mobile phone service would be feasible, the FCC decided only to allocate a limited amount of frequencies, which in turn was not a market incentive for further research by the phone companies. (26) In 1968, the FCC reconsidered its position, and considered increasing the frequencies allocation, and freeing the airwaves for more mobile telephones on the condition that enough technology existed to build a better mobile service. (27) By 1977, AT&T and Bell Labs constructed a prototype cellular system and by 1982, the FCC authorized commercial cellular service for the U.S.. (28)

    From the start, cellular phones caused controversy and today the trend continues. However, the establishment of these devices into our everyday lives cannot be overlooked and should be taken into consideration by lawmakers and concerned citizens alike.


    With the ubiquitous nature of cellular phones in our everyday lives, driving while using a cellular phone has become as common place as eating, putting on makeup, and the other daily activities that are done each day by individuals in their automobiles. The CTIA estimates that there are more than 120 million cellular phones in operation in the U.S. (29) A large majority of these cellular phones are used to conduct business, in case of emergencies, to keep in touch with loved ones, or for assistance and reporting dangerous situations to authorities. (30)

    It is estimated by NHTSA that at any given time, an estimated three percent of those driving passenger vehicles are talking on hand-held cellular phones. (31) This agency estimates that 500,000 drivers of passenger vehicles (cars, vans, sport utility vehicles and pickups) are talking on hand-held cell phones during any given daytime during the week. (32) This research represents the first observational study by NHTSA of active cellular phone use by drivers; the data collectors observed more than 12,000 vehicles between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. during a period spanning October and November 2000. (33) Female drivers were observed more frequently using cellular phones while driving than were male drivers. (34) Despite this research, the benefits of cellular phones, according to NHTSA, include faster emergency medical service response, quicker conveyance of information to authorities about road hazards or problem drivers, and heightened personal security for occupants of phone-equipped vehicles. (35)

    Advocates for cellular phone use in cars point to other forms of driver distraction. For example, an article on CTIA's website points to the fast-food industry as encouraging people to eat while they...

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