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Mental dexterity takes our mind off the road

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BOSTON — Last week I moved out of my old car. I use the word "move" advisedly since, to be frank, I use my car as a pocketbook, file cabinet and shopping cart. After nine years of hard living in this second home, I should have called United Van Lines to empty it out.

To give you a hint, I found the following items among the anthropological ruins of the past decade: two dead umbrellas, a press credential for a Bob Dole event, and a sweater I was taking to the cleaners in 1997.

But never mind. The point is that I moved into a new home — uh, car — that comes equipped with a hands-free phone. This will make it possible for me to chat and drive, speak and steer, yak and track through New York state legally. Although not necessarily safely.

On the very day I picked up my new car, the governor of the Empire State, George Pataki, signed the first state law banning the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers, effective Dec. 1. "This will save lives and prevent fatalities," he said, exhibiting the fanfare, self-delusion and good cheer of a politician taking credit for something that had few foes and no political price tag.

The first-in-the-nation ban passed the New York Assembly by 125-19, not long after polls showed that an equally astonishing 85 percent of New Yorkers supported the legislation. It seems that New Yorkers, who are just like Americans only a little more so, share the national love-hate relationship with cell phones.

Today, more than 115 million Americans have cell phones, and 65 percent of all cell phone conversations are in the car. That means, by my own estimate, 31,264 essential calls to announce, "Honey, I'm right around the corner with the pizza. Put the oven on."

The very same people who use cell phones — present company shamefacedly included — are convinced that they should be taken out of the hands of (other) idiots who use them. This is a perfect set-up for the rule of politics: Don't just stand there, do something. But not very much.

In this case, New York banned hand-held phones while managing to do almost nothing to "save lives and prevent fatalities," or alienate phone companies and users. Indeed, drivers found guilty of holding a phone can waive the $100 first-time fine if they buy a hands-free model.

But here's where the canker gnaws: it's not in our hands; It's in our heads that we are driven to distraction. It's not manual dexterity but mental dexterity that takes our mind off the road.

Virtually every debate about the risks of car-phoning quotes a 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that the odds of being in an accident while on the phone were four times higher than normal. But often overlooked is the point that "units that allowed the hands to be free offered no safety advantage over hand-held units."

Another researcher, David Strayer of the University of Utah, determined that the conversation is the culprit. Talking on the phone was far more distracting than listening to radio or books on tape. In his study, people on phones were twice as likely to miss a red light. And once again, it didn't matter if the phone is hand-held or hand-free.

It turns out that attention is a limited commodity. We can't do two things at once, if one requires attention. In fact, the more involved we are in a conversation, the less involved we are with the road. This sorry fact conflicts with our passion for multitasking, the pressures of productivity and our impatience at wasting time sitting in traffic.

Just how dangerous is car-phoning on the immense scale of highway disasters? Strayer says, "That's the $64,000 question." It's actually the 40,000-car-fatalities-a-year question. We don't even know how much more dangerous car-phoning is than drinking coffee, eating lunch or applying makeup at 65 miles an hour. Is there a difference between a conversation limited to "Yes, Mom" or riveted to "He said WHAT?"

Strayer is now comparing talking and driving with drinking and driving. There's reason to suspect that the risk is the same. What then, Mothers Against Chatty Driving?

This year about 100 similar bills have been filed in about 40 states. I'm willing to bet my shiny new car that the New York version is not the final one.

The truth is that we want cell phones in the car and we want to ban them. We know they're dangerous and we know they're handy. The New York legislators set out to let drivers keep their phones and their safety. But it really is hard to do two things at once.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com .