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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Monday, August 13, 2007

When it gets to 111, CELL!

How, exactly, did we survive before cell phones?

I often wonder that in connection with my job as a newspaper editor, because cell phones make it so easy for me to contact reporters or photographers who are out in the field. And it’s impossible to deny the convenience of being able to call anyone from anywhere at any time. But today, I was reminded of how vital these little hand-held devices have become in emergencies.

I was on the Thruway this morning, driving north from Kingston to Albany, when traffic came to a dead stop about 9:20 a.m. near mile marker 111, just south of the Catskill exit. At first, I thought it was just a routine Thruway slowdown, and that we’d start creeping ahead almost immediately and then be able to pick up speed after passing the trouble spot. But it soon became clear that something was very wrong and that we were in for a long wait. Nothing was moving. At all. Drivers started to get out of the cars. Some craned their necks to look for the problem. Others walked up the shoulder a bit to see if they could find out what was going on. One guy even climbed onto the roof of his car to get a better view. Pretty soon, word started to make its way down the line that a large truck had gone onto its side and was blocking both northbound lanes.

Police, firefighters, EMTs and tow trucks had reached the scene pretty quickly (thanks to wide shoulders on that stretch of the Thruway that allowed them to bypass the standstill traffic), and they got the road open about 45 minutes after the accident. It wasn’t exactly a short wait, but it occurred to me as we started moving that authorities probably got to the scene as fast as they did because people who witnessed the accident called 911 on their cell phones. How long might we have been stuck in traffic before the proliferation of cell phones? An hour? Two? Three? And how much longer would it have taken paramedics to reach anyone who was hurt in the crash?

Cell phones often get a bad rap because of how many car accidents are caused by drivers who forget to pay attention to the road while chatting. But it occurs to me – and I believe there have been studies conducted to back this up – that the fatality rate in car accidents probably has fallen in the last decade or two because the existence of cell phones has allowed emergency responders to be notified almost immediately after an accident occurs and reach the scene much faster than in the past.

Think about that next time a cell phone user annoys you, next time you’re stuck in traffic, or – God forbid – next time you’re in a car accident.



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