Despite calls for cellphone bans, there's no conclusive data on safety
CHICAGO, Mar 28, 2012 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) --
A bill pending in Illinois' capital would ban all drivers from using hand-held cellphones in the state. An ordinance being considered in Evanston would go further and prohibit motorists in that town from talking on cellphones of any kind _ including hands-free.
It's a matter of safety, proponents of both measures say.
But two decades of research done in the U.S. and abroad have not yielded conclusive data about the impact cellphones have on driving safety, it appears. Nor is there a consensus that hands-free devices make for safer driving than hand-held cellphones.
In theory, the effect of cellphones on driver performance should be relatively easy to determine: Compare crash data against phone records of drivers involved in accidents. But phone records are not easily obtained in the United States, forcing researchers in this country to find less direct ways to analyze the danger of cellphone distraction. The issue is further clouded by that fact that auto accidents overall have been decreasing even as cellphones become more common.
"The expectation would be that as cellphone use has skyrocketed we would see a correlation in the number of accidents, but that hasn't happened," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Adkins said the association believes states should simply enforce their current cellphone laws, if any, and wait for further research to better understand exactly how much of a role cellphone use plays in automobile accidents.
"We know it's distracting, we know it increases the likelihood of a crash," Adkins said. "It just hasn't shown up in data in a lot of cases _ in other words, it's hard to prove that a crash was caused because someone was on their cellphone."
State Rep. John D'Amico, D-Chicago, emphasized that traffic safety is behind the hand-held ban legislation he sponsored, which passed the House earlier this month and is now being considered by the state Senate. It would make Illinois the 10th state to have such a ban, though several towns in the state already have their own bans. A current state law only bans hand-held cellphone use in construction and school zones and prohibits cellphone use for drivers 18 and younger.
"I want to make sure that people understand that drivers need to be responsible, because they're taking other people's live into their hands when they're driving a car and using a hand-held cellphone," D'Amico said.
Proponents of cellphone restrictions _ whether total bans or prohibition of hand-held phones _ can cite some studies to back up their positions.
A 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal looked at crash data for 456 cellphone subscribers in Perth, Australia, who had an auto accident that required medical attention. The study, which essentially confirmed a similar 1997 study conducted in Toronto, concluded drivers talking on their phones were about four times more likely to be involved in an accident than those who were not on the phone.
Another highly publicized 2006 study from the University of Utah concluded drivers who talked on cellphones were as impaired as drivers who were intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit of .08. The study, however, found that using hands-free devices did little to improve drivers' performances.
There is some evidence suggesting state and local bans have caused some drivers to talk less while on the road.
Earlier this month California's Office of Traffic Safety released the results of a study showing a sharp decrease in the number of accidents caused by cellphone use that resulted in death or injury.
Researchers tracked the number of accident reports that listed cellphone use as a factor during the two-year periods prior to and following the 2008 passage of a statewide ban on hand-held devices. The study concluded that while overall traffic fatalities of all kinds dropped by 22 percent, fatalities caused by drivers who were talking on a hand-held phone at the time of the crash dropped nearly 50 percent. Similar declines were found for drivers using hands-free devices.
The study followed the agency's 2011 survey of more than 1,800 drivers that found that only about 10 percent of drivers reported that they regularly talked on the phone while driving _ down from 14 percent from the previous year's survey. In addition, the survey saw increases in the number of people who said they rarely or never use their cellphone behind the wheel.
Those surveyed, however, overwhelmingly believed that hands-free devices made cellphone use safer, a perception that runs counter to research showing such tools do little to reduce the distraction.
"If there is an advantage, it's only because a person may have two hands on the wheel, but most people drive with one hand all the time anyway," said Chris Cochran, spokesman for the Office of Traffic Safety. "In reality, it's the conversation, not the phone itself.
"Frankly, we're skeptical that a ban on hand-held (phones) would have that big of an impact, because there's not really a difference in the level of distraction," Cochran said. "But ... what we found was that 40 percent of drivers say that they are using their cellphones much less or not at all, or they've given it up entirely. So there is a sizable portion of the motoring public that have given up cellphone use or markedly cut back."
A 2010 survey conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration asked more than 6,000 drivers to describe their cellphone use behind the wheel and their perception of how it affected their driving ability.
The survey found that nearly 77 percent were likely to answer an incoming call while driving, but only 41 percent placed outgoing calls. A little more than half said they didn't believe talking on a hand-held device had any effect on their driving performance, though about 20 percent said they tended to drive more slowly while on the phone.
Several recent studies have questioned if cellphone use is a grave danger to motorists, including one released earlier this year by University of Chicago economics professor Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram Pathania, of the London School of Economics.
The study used a widespread feature of cellphone carriers in the previous decade _ the 9 p.m. rate discount _ to measure whether drivers were more likely to crash while on the phone. A comparison of hundreds of thousands of calls made just before and just after 9 p.m. against crash data found that while call volumes increased when rates became cheaper, there was no corresponding rise in the number of accidents. Researchers looked at calls that went from cell tower to cell tower, indicating the caller was moving at the time.
"Most people are convinced that using cellphones while driving is dangerous," Bhargava said. "What we find flies in the face of the prevalent viewpoint. Despite a rise in driver call volume of about 7 percent, we find no rise in the relative crash rate."
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Bhargava said their study does not discount that cellphones pose a distraction for drivers, but said that many of the more well-known studies failed to account for two main variables: some drivers who are naturally more careful while on the phone, and others who are poor drivers whether they're on the phone or not.
"So one explanation for our result is that cellphones may be dangerous, but drivers are aware of the danger and drive more slowly or only use their cell in situations that are safe. They regulate themselves," Bhargava said. "Another possible explanation is that there is a set of risk-loving drivers out there who, if they weren't using their cellphones, might be involved in other distracting activities, such as playing with the radio."
Another recent study examined call and crash data collected by General Motors subsidiary OnStar, which provides hands-free cellphone calling in vehicles equipped with the system. The system also automatically calls the OnStar customer service representatives when a driver's vehicle is involved in an accident severe enough to deploy the air bags.
The study, conducted in 2009 by researchers from Wayne State University, examined more than 91 million calls made on the OnStar hands-free system by nearly 324,000 drivers over the course a two and a half years.
The study found that drivers using OnStar's hands-free system experienced about five air bag deployments per 100 million minutes of driving, while those who were not using the system to make calls had a little more than eight air bag deployments per 100 million minutes of driving.
Researchers concluded that drivers who used hands-free devices faced little to no more risk of an accident than those who weren't on the phone, in marked contrast to previous studies that placed the risk at four times greater.
But the study was later criticized for failing to factor in the possibility that many of the study's drivers may have been using a conventional cellphone when they had an accident causing air bags to deploy.
CELLPHONES NOT THE ONLY THING DISTRACTING DRIVERS
Much of the recent debate about distracted driving has focused on the use of cellphones and texting by motorists, but studies have shown that any number of other activities can impair drivers.
A 2010 report by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which listed a host of possible distractions _ including phone calls, adjusting the radio, gawking at an accident and painting fingernails _ found that driver distraction was a factor in 11 percent of the 30,797 fatal accidents the previous year.
Moreover, out of the more than 2.2 million people injured in automobile accidents, the agency estimated that 20 percent were victims of a crash involving a distracted driver.
In 2008, a task force led by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White proposed that lawmakers create several new offenses to give police and prosecutors greater ability to prosecute distracted driving. But to date, the state has only banned texting while driving and placed moderate limits on cellphone use.
Locally, a few municipalities have crafted ordinances to encourage motorists to keep their focus on driving.
In October 2010, Plainfield passed an ordinance allowing police to issue citations for negligent driving if they see erratic driving due to any number of "inattentive actions." "Such actions include, but shall not be limited to, the following during operation of the vehicle: the use of an electronic communication device ... eating and/or drinking ... reading of any written or electronically displayed material ... and/or personal grooming," according to the ordinance.
Last year, Highland Park officials passed a virtually identical ordinance at the same time they adopted a separate ordinance barring drivers from using hand-held cellphones.
Like Plainfield, Highland Park's negligent driving rule allows police officers to ticket drivers if their inattentive actions _ such as eating or personal grooming _ cause "observable deficiencies in the safe operation of the vehicle," according to the ordinance.
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