For many Americans, especially those under 40, using a cell phone while driving seems perfectly normal. And when you consider that there are over 236 million cell-phone users, that’s a lot of them on the road. But is it safe? The numbers say no.
Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that more than 25 percent of all police-reported vehicular accidents are caused by the use of cell phones while driving. (And, of course, thousands of other accidents go unreported.) Car insurance companies are keenly aware of the hazards.
The problem? A phone-using driver is a distracted driver. Though many maintain that “multi-tasking” has no effect on concentration, tests have repeatedly proven this false. According to University of a Utah study, for example, a young person on the phone has about the same reaction speed as someone 70+ years old. Other research and highway law enforcement observation commonly compare drive-and-chat performance to drunk driving. Excessive slowness, inattentiveness to traffic conditions, and lane-to-lane weaving are all dead giveaways.
The consequences, too, are predictably similar. Phone-distracted motorists hit more potholes, miss more warning signs, and generally fail more often to process their surroundings than do alert, fully focused drivers. The problem is most serious when pedestrians are involved. By law, a car must yield the right of way to all pedestrians at all times, but when a driver’s attention is diverted, this rule is one of the first to be forgotten.
No Hands? No Difference!
Many cell-phone users are convinced that hands-free devices remove the dangers of distracted driving. Not so. It isn’t the phone that causes mishaps, it’s the conversation itself. Just listening and processing information takes attention off the road. And if it’s something really important – a pivotal business discussion, bad news from home, or a heated argument – there’s likely to be little attention left for safe, sensible driving.
It isn’t surprising then that cell-phone calls are banned entirely from more than a dozen major nations, including Japan, Australia, Chile, Great Britain, and Spain.
Yet, Americans cling to their anything-goes attitude. Few states have outlawed cell phones completely, and of those that do, penalties are relatively light. In many places, a patrol car can pull over a driver for using a cell phone only if a more serious infraction is taking place, so the law is essentially meaningless.
What’s more, car makers are adding to the problem, installing voice-activated “intercom”-style phone systems as built-in equipment. These motorists may not have to worry about fumbling through pockets for a ringing phone, or dropping the phone in the middle of a conversation. But the distraction is still there, as long as someone’s on the line.