Are government bans on cell phone use while driving needed and would they help?

Sydney Myers
Teen Lifestyle Editor from  Dallas, TX
| December 16, 2011

If you do a Google search for "texting while driving dangerous" you'll find links to dozens of studies to prove this point. If you do a search for "texting while driving not dangerous" you'll find the same studies. The fact is that there is no study that proves that cell phone use while driving is not dangerous. So let's just get that out of the way.

Now the question is How dangerous is it? The National Transportation Safety Board made the recommendation that all cell phone use should be banned, but is that really necessary? If such bans are put in place, would they do any good? Let's examine the facts.

Research findings

When it comes to texting or talking on the phone while driving, there are two arguments: Yes, it is dangerous; and No, it's not dangerous, at least not as dangerous as people say. I've heard different people say that texting is no more dangerous than other distractions like changing the radio station, talking to a passenger, or necessarily looking in the rear-view mirror when changing lanes. This is true. In a report by Young, Regan, & Hammer on driver distractions, it is noted that "distraction is an inevitable consequence of being human ... driver distraction cannot be eliminated.” However, as a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association brings out, "the challenge is to identify and eliminate those distractions that increase crash risk substantially." With that in mind, let's examine several studies and reports to see if cell phone use while driving 'substantially increases crash risk.' We'll run through them with bullet points.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 16% of fatal crashes and 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved at least one distracted driver.
  • Other crash data studies show that drivers were distracted in 15% to 30% of all crashes, though the distraction may not have caused or contributed to the crash.
  • A 2006 study by researchers from the University of Utah revealed that a person who is talking on a cell phone while driving is just as impaired as a drunk driver. Dr. David Strayer, one of the authors of this study, said, "Cell phone conversation draws attention away from the processing of the visual environment." This agrees with a 2003 study by the same group that revealed that drivers who using a cell phone are essentially "blind" even when looking direcctly at an object "because attention is directed elsewhere." Dr. Strayer went on to say, "Even though you're eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cell phone, you are not as likely to see it."
  • A 2009 experiment by David Bellinger and others at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio found that cell phone conversations slowed response time while listening to music did not.
  • A 2010 report by C.M. Farmer and others combined research from two other studies and concluded that cell phone use caused 1.3 million car crashes in 2008.
  • More recently, a study just published by the Texas Transportation Institute showed that a driver's reaction time is doubled from one to two seconds when not texting to three to four seconds when he or she is sending or receiving a text message. According to the report, "drivers were less able to safely maintain their position in the driving lane when they were texting". Three or four seconds may not seem like that much, but at 30 mph, five seconds equals 220 feet. At 60 mph, five seconds represents 440 feet. Even when traveling 55 mph, you cover the length of a football field in just a few seconds.

These are just a few of the numerous studies on this matter. They all prove the same point: cell phone use does cause a certain amount of danger when driving. Need more proof? Try this test by The New York Times that measures how your reaction time in affected by texting.

The problem is, while researchers can definitively cite cell phone use a role in car accidents, it's difficult to determine how large a role it plays. Cell phone use has proven to be a distraction but measuring the impact of a distraction is difficult to do in a lab test since researches are not going to simply allow drivers to text at will and wreck a bunch of cars. Not only that, but certain distractions are not always listed in crash reports or given due attention for whatever reason, whether it's a lack of understanding or a lack of knowledge on the officer's part as to the person's actions before the accident. And of course, these surveys and crash reports rely on honest answers. However, even taking all of these "unknowns" into consideration, these would only increase the known risk of cell phone use while driving rather than diminish it.

Do laws on cell phone use while driving help?

This is probably the main argument. A person can talk until they're red in the face about whether or not texting while driving is dangerous, but the real issue is whether or not the government has the right to ban cell phone use while driving or if it would do any good. I'm not going to get into the political side of this since this isn't a political website and I just don't want to get involved with that. What we're going to consider is IF the government instituted these bans, would they do any good?

Studies have been conducted in New York, the District of Columbia, Connecticut, and North Carolina, states that have implemented laws on cell phone use while driving. A study conducted in New York examined crash rates per driver from 1997 to 2007. In 2001, New York implemented a hand-held cell phone law. The study showed that after the law went into effect, crash rates were lower in all 62 counties and significantly lower in 46 counties. Fatal crash rates were lower in 46 counties and significantly lower in 10. It's a different story when looking into bans on novice drivers (teenagers). For whatever reason (I can think of a few), laws on cell phone use have little to no effect on teenagers and their driving habits. How surprising.

As for bans on texting while driving, there is no proof that texting bans have reduced the rate of car crashes. One study from 2010 showed that the rate of car crashes either stayed the same or increased, possibly because drivers are hiding the phone in their lap so as not to get caught, thereby causing even more unsafe conditions.

Cell phone use while driving is a dangerous distraction. It remains to be seen if the government will institute laws to limit this. If those laws are put into effect, it is the obligation of the citizens to obey that law, maybe then they would actually have a positive effect on things.

Image via The English Blog