Talking on cellphones is the leading cause of crashes caused by driver distraction, according to the California Highway Patrol. Maybe this is because new evidence shows that cellphones may trigger the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies of rats in Sweden found that radiation from mobile phones damages areas of the brain associated with learning, memory and movement, but so far, no one has found conclusive evidence that cellphones damage the human brain. It’s a long-running debate between people who want to talk and drive and other drivers who wish they wouldn’t, and people who say cellphones are safe to use and others who think they’re turning our brains into Swiss cheese.

Leif Salford experimented on rats aged between 12 and 26 weeks old, when their brains are in the same stage of development as human teenagers. The rats were exposed to two hours of radiation of the same kind emitted by mobile phones. When their brains were examined under a microscope 50 days later, they had many dead brain cells. “A rat’s brain is very much the same as a human’s,? says Salford. “We have good reason to believe that what happens in rat’s brains also happens in humans.”

He also thinks cellphones could set off Alzheimer’s disease in some people. “What we are saying is those neurons that are already prone to Alzheimer’s disease may be stimulated earlier in life,” he says. “However, this theory is hypothetical. We do not have evidence yet that the human brain is affected in this way?We cannot exclude that after some decades of often daily use, a whole generation of users may suffer negative effects maybe already in their middle age.”

In California, talking on cell phones is the leading cause of car crashes that can be blamed on distracted drivers. “I didn’t think cell phones would be the highest category,” says Spike Helmick, of the California Highway Patrol. “But I was wrong. We have to be concerned.”

When state officials studied what distracted drivers in 9,000 crashes, cellphone use was the cause of 891 of them, almost one in 10. This was followed closely by fumbling with the radio or CD player, which resulted in 768 crashes. Disciplining kids in the car, eating and smoking were other leading causes, but were far behind the first two.

However, most crashes aren’t caused by driver distraction. Out of the 522,562 crashes in California in 2001, only 51,107 were due to driver inattention. Speeding is the cause of most crashes.

But highway patrol spokesman Tom Marshall thinks the number of crashes caused by cellphones is much higher. He says, “Any right-minded person knows a driver probably won’t ‘fess up to the fact he was on a cell phone.”

Retired Sgt. Bruce Raye says he never handled an accident involving a cellphone during his 10 years in the San Jose police traffic division. But he also said that such reports could be low because officers don’t remember to ask about a cellphone, due to all the other information they’re required to put in an accident report. “You can’t get them to write the correct court date on a ticket, let alone remember if a cell phone was related to the accident,” he says. “There are probably many more accidents where cell phones contributed.”

But driver Andrea Puck of Santa Clara says, “If the risky behavior truly is the conversation, then banning the device is as ridiculous as banning conversation while driving. If you really want to get rid of distractions while driving, ban children from cars.”

Maybe we should stick to ESP. The U.S. government tried it with great success, although they?re keeping it a secret.

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