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
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
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
That opinion has been echoed experts in the telecommunications
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
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.