The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association is honoring cellular phone users for good deeds and quick thinking, but a recent study concludes using a cell phone while driving puts travellers in danger.

Debbie Fedorak called 9-1-1 after witnessing someone driving erratically. The RCMP investigated and she was later told the driver was drunk. Tineke Rijzinga was recovering from surgery in her backyard hammock when a bear came along. She also called 9-1-1. The subsequent sirens from a police car scared the bear off.

After witnessing a traffic accident, Darren Thomas called for help and ushered one of the drivers away from a gas-leaking vehicle. Aarti Smith called a tow truck for a stranded motorist. Worried her dodgy car might break down again, she asked Smith if she could loan her phone. Smith agreed, asking only that it be mailed back to her.

Bell Mobility, Roges AT&A Wireless, Telus Mobility and Microcell Mobility each selected a winner for the 2001 Western Canada Wireless Safety Awards.

“It’s part of a program that we have here at CWTA (Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association) called Connected to the Community,” says Marc Choma, a spokesperson for the lobby group. “It celebrates not just wireless heroes, such as people who have saved lives through using their wireless phone, but also wireless industry companies that have partnered with educational institutions, projects like Operation Red Nose where cellular companies donate wireless communications to help communities.”

These are a small percentage of emergency calls made every day, according Choma. He says more than three million emergency calls a year are made from cell phones and account for 25 per cent of 9-1-1 calls.

What’s unclear, however, is how many of those calls were necessitated by cell phone users. While government agencies do not seem to track car accidents caused by cell phone use, a study in the November issue of Psychological Science concludes people taking on the phone while driving missed twice as many traffic signals and took longer to react to signals they did detect. It made no difference whether the drivers were using a hands-free model or not.

A Toronto-based study published in the New England Journal of Medicine draws a similar conclusion. “We found that using a cellular telephone was associated with a risk of having a motor vehicle collision that was about four times as high as that among the same drivers when they were not using their cellular telephones. This relative risk is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit,” reads the study.

Choma says legislation banning the use of cell phones while driving isn’t necessary.

“There was a recent study by the American Automobile Association that puts cell phones at the bottom f the list in terms of distraction,” says Choma. “Our stand here has always been when you’re behind the wheel safety is your number one priority.”

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