Your pal makes some interesting points. Italians seem to have more than one cell phone per person and they yak on them all the time, even while driving (though it's illegal unless a hands-free setup is used) but don't seem to run over many cyclists.
I don't think super-harsh penalties for distracted driving are enough to protect cyclists. I believe what keeps Europeans from running us over is the popularity of the sport and the much greater use of bicycles in general, combined with the view that roads belong to everyone.
In Italy the automobile or motorist is not king, even if he or she is piloting a Ferrari. Sure, they have the right to use the roads but only the auto and super strada roads are exclusively for them, everywhere else people ride bicycles or motor scooters and even walk in the road.
We see folks walking in the road all the time when there's no sidewalk, even pushing baby strollers along! There's none of the "get off MY road!" attitude there, unlike so many places in the US.
Add in that lots of folks ride bicycles, including the local pro and amateur cycling teams along with most everyone's mother (who uses a bike to pop down to the bakery or butcher shop every day). You end up with motorists who generally pay more attention to other road users and give them respect.
Think about it. Who would want to be the motorist who ran over the local pro? Or their best friend's mother? More often you see the motorist waving to the local pro or friend's mother as they go by.
I doubt this will ever be the case in the US until traffic-calming devices are put into more cities and bicycles get used for more purposes by more people. Taxes on motor fuels could help but I don't see the political will to impose them on a society where we can't even get a decent health care reform bill passed over the special-interest group objections.
My answer is, as you know, to MOVE as soon as we can figure out a way to do it.
Best Regards, Larry