Lawmakers focus on cell phones despite less than clear safety threat

| 3/2/2005

Around the country, cell phones are being treated as a major safety issue, with state legislatures debating whether to ban drivers from using them, even though less than one in 10 is chatting it up while behind the wheel.

The legislative efforts are under way despite evidence that wireless phones are not any more of a distraction than smoking a cigarette or changing the radio station.

A survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed about 8 percent of 38,000 drivers observed were using a cell phone. And the survey showed the number of drivers using hand-held cell phones was even less – 5 percent, or one in 20.

Nevertheless, at least 12 state legislatures either are considering or have considered bills this year that would restrict cell phone use by drivers. Two states, New York and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia have banned cell use behind the wheel unless a hands-free device is used.

But many of the bills may be missing the point.

According to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Santa Monica, CA, talking on a cell phone is equally distracting – whether you are holding the phone to your ear or using a hands-free device. The society, founded in 1957, studies systems and devices in relation to how human beings use them, especially in the area ergonomics.

“Can hands-free devices reduce accidents, fatalities, or damage? No, say human factors researchers,” officials of the society’s journal, Human Factors, wrote in a news release. “In fact, if a hands-free device is not easy to use, a driver who uses it could be even more distracted than by simply holding the phone.”

The society’s researchers found that talking on a cell phone makes drivers more likely to miss important visual clues such as traffic signals. And although voice-activated cell phone systems are not as bad, even they can distract a driver: Drivers slow down when they enter information either manually or by voice.

NHTSA’s observation survey in 2004 showed that hand-held cell phone use is increasing among younger drivers and female drivers, while the percentage of men playing phone tag on the road remains the same. Overall, the number of drivers using hand-held cell phones in 2004 was 5 percent, up from 4 percent in 2002 and 3 percent in 2000.

According to NHTSA’s interpretation of the data, 8 percent of all drivers on U.S. roads are on a cell phone at any given moment – that’s about 1.2 million drivers nationwide.

But with cell-phone related incidents making up only a small percentage of motor vehicle accidents, even some government officials wonder why this particular behavior – as opposed to other distractions that drivers face – is the target of so many legislative efforts.

“We’ve evaluated and come to the conclusion that hands-free use is just as risky or perhaps riskier than hand-held phones because it’s the cognitive distraction that can compromise driving” Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The New York Times.

Tyson said research within his agency and outside, along with driving simulations, found that it was the act of talking on a cell phone while driving that was distracting – not holding a phone – and that therefore cell phones should be used by drivers only in emergencies.

That opinion has been echoed experts in the telecommunications industry.

Erin McGee, a spokeswoman for the Cellular Telephone & Internet Association, told The Times, “I don’t think that it’s any more dangerous than eating or drinking or driver fatigue. It’s easy to single out wireless phones as a distraction because they’re easier to see. It may be harder to see a driver changing the radio or talking to a passenger.”

Several states have made broader attempts to stop all distracting behavior in motor vehicles, but those efforts have virtually all fallen short of passage.

Both New York and California were among the states that considered bills in 2004 that would ban a whole class of distracting behaviors – including smoking, eating, drinking, adjusting the radio, combing your hair – even faxing appeared on one list.