The congressionally chartered National Safety Council is advocating for the first time a total ban on cell phone use while driving, including hands-free use, saying the practice is clearly dangerous and leads to fatalities. States should ban drivers from using hand-held and hands-free cell phones, and businesses should prohibit employees from using cell phones while driving on the job. The problem is not where your hands are, but where your brain is.
There are 270 million cell phone users in the U.S. and 80 percent of them talk on the phone while driving. Drivers talking on a cell phone are four times as likely to have an accident as drivers who are not – the same level of risk posed by a driver who is legally drunk.
A large body of research now shows that a hands-free phone poses no less danger than a hand-held one. The council examined more than 50 scientific studies before reaching its decision. One was a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis that estimates 6 percent of vehicle crashes, causing about 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious injuries a year, are attributable to cell phone use. It may be that talking on the phone generates mental images that conflict with the spatial processing needed for safe driving. Eye-tracking studies show that while drivers continually look side to side, cellphone users tend to stare straight ahead. Studies show that cellphone conversations are highly distracting compared with other speaking and listening activities in the car.
A December report in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied indicated that passenger conversations differ from cell phone conversations because the surrounding traffic not only becomes a topic of the conversation, helping driver and passenger to share situation awareness, but the driving condition also has a direct influence on the complexity of the conversation, thereby mitigating the potential negative effects of a conversation on driving.
In that study, Utah researchers put 96 drivers in a simulator, instructing them to drive several miles down the road and pull off at a rest stop. Sometimes the drivers were talking on a hands-free cell phone, and sometimes they were chatting with a friend in the next seat. Nearly every driver with a passenger found the rest stop, in part because the passenger often acted as an extra set of eyes, alerting the driver to the approaching exit. But among those talking on the cellphone, half missed the exit. In contrast, listening to talk radio or an audio book does not degrade driving skill. (A quiz after the driving test confirmed that the drivers were really paying attention to the programs.)
No state currently bans all cell phone use while driving. Six states California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington and the District of Columbia ban the use of hand-held cell phones behind the wheel, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Also, 17 states and the district restrict or ban cell phone use by novice drivers.
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