Robert Alter loved his cell phone.
"He slept with that phone," said his mother, Brenda Alter.
Robert had his phone with him the night he died in a one-car crash on North Tyler Road.
"He was coming home," Brenda Alder said. "He had just dropped his girlfriend at her house, and he was coming home."
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Wichita police said Robert was headed south on Tyler, just south of 21st, when he lost control of his car and skidded into a tree at 9:02 p.m. on a snowy Monday night.
He was driving too fast, investigators said. And he was exchanging text messages with his girlfriend.
He was one of four people who died last year in traffic accidents that investigators attributed, at least in part, to the use of cell phones.
Kansas law already restricts the use of cell phones by minor drivers, and the Legislature next year is expected to consider imposing at least some restrictions on adults.
Some legislators and traffic safety experts said a ban on texting while driving is likely to come out of next year's legislative session. But they said an outright ban on cell phone use while driving isn't likely — despite growing evidence that they are causing accidents.
Over the past five years, Kansas Department of Transportation records show, cell phone use has been listed as a contributing factor in 1,647 traffic accidents that left 793 people injured and 22 dead.
Because cell phone use is usually self-reported, safety experts suspect the number is probably much larger.
"You drive around, and you see everybody's on a cell phone," said Pete Bodyk, chief of the Kansas Department of Transportation's Bureau of Traffic Safety. "They get in a crash, nobody's on a cell phone."
In addition to the Wichita crash, the 2008 cell phone fatalities occurred:
* On Feb. 12 in Anderson County when a 22-year-old woman using a cell phone lost control of her car and crashed on U.S. 69.
* On Aug. 1 in Wallace County when a 56-year-old woman using a cell phone lost control of her tractor-trailer and crashed on K-27.
* On June 28 in Douglas County when a 21-year-old man using a cell phone struck and killed an off-duty Douglas County sheriff's lieutenant who was riding his bicycle between Lawrence and Eudora.
Cell phone figures
Last year in Kansas, "distraction mobile (cell) phone" was listed as a contributing factor in 394 accidents. That's up more than 50 percent from 2004, when 261 such crashes were reported.
There were 65,858 crashes in Kansas last year, so the figures suggest that 1 out of every 167 was caused by cell phone use.
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Warner said he thinks the numbers are misleading.
"It's a lot more dramatic than what the numbers suggest," he said. "Anybody who drives up and down the road knows that cell phone usage is big."
When investigating a crash, Warner said, a cell phone in the car throws up an immediate red flag.
But when investigating a one-vehicle crash that has no witnesses, he said, "I'm relying completely on the information that the driver's giving me. That's why the numbers are so incredibly low, I think."
The documented cell phone accidents last year in Kansas included 61 that occurred in Sedgwick County. Only Johnson County, which had 105, had more. Butler County recorded six such accidents last year and Harvey County recorded two.
Over the past five years, 48 percent of the 1,647 cell phone crashes involved female drivers. More than half the drivers were 25 or younger.
Fridays and Saturdays were the busiest days for cell phone accidents, with each accounting for 17 percent of the total. Sunday accounted for 11 percent, making it the safest day of the week.
The figures suggest that the afternoon rush hour is the most dangerous time for drivers to use cell phones. About 25 percent of the accidents occurred between 3 and 6 p.m. The morning rush hour was safer. Only 9 percent of the accidents occurred between 7 and 10 a.m.
State Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, a longtime member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he thinks the Legislature will enact a ban on texting while driving next year.
"I really do think something's going to happen on that, and I think it probably should," he said. "Obviously it's a very dangerous habit."
He said the resistance to an outright ban on cell phone use would be strong.
"A cell phone now is part of how people live and operate," he said. "I don't expect a full-blown ban on cell phones to pass this year."
When the Legislature convenes Jan. 11, 19 states will have laws that ban text messaging while driving, and six will have laws banning the use of handheld cell phones. In eight states, local governments are prohibited by state law from restricting cell phone use.
Robert Alter's phone
Robert Alter bought a cell phone with his first paycheck after he landed a job at Collections Etc. near Goddard in October 2007.
"He bought the cell phone with own money," Brenda Alter said. "That's the only reason he had it."
He was scheduled to graduate from West High School in May, she said, and he wanted to pursue a career in computers.
"He loved computers," Brenda Alter said. "He was going to be a programmer. He was going to go to Butler and take computer classes."
Wichita police said that on the night he died, Robert sent a text message to his girlfriend three to four minutes before the crash. She sent a reply, police said, but no one knows if he read it. He didn't send a response.
Robert left behind two younger brothers, who are 9 and 13. Brenda Alter said they won't be using cell phones while learning to drive.
"I don't allow cell phones anymore," she said.