Driving hazards: the phone factor: many things can distract drivers, but mobile phones are today's focus.
The fact is there are hundreds of things that can distract us from driving, making driver inattention a significant traffic safety concern. Each year, more than 42,000 people are killed and more than 3 million are injured in more than 6 million motor vehicle crashes on our nation's roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of all motor vehicle crashes--or 1.2 million accidents--are caused by a distracted driver.
PHONE USE DRAWS ATTENTION
Although studies conflict over which distractions cause the most accidents, one has drawn the most attention from lawmakers across the United States: the use of a wireless phone while driving.
Over the last three years, legislators have proposed bills on mobile phone use while driving in all 50 states. During the 2003 session alone, legislatures in 42 states considered such measures. Seventeen states have passed laws dealing with mobile phone use, at least 17 track mobile phone involvement in crashes, and legislatures in six states have approved studies to gather more information on the issue.
The rise in interest coincides with the dramatic increase in both the quantity and quality of wireless communications technology available in the car. The number of wireless phone subscribers in the United States has more than doubled since 1998.
The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association reports that more than 147 million people now subscribe to wireless services. A vast majority of these subscribers--more than 140 million--use portable devices that can be taken in and out of vehicles. NHTSA estimates that 73 percent of subscribers use their phones while driving.
The growth of wireless technology in the car has been matched by greater complexity and potential for distraction. Modern phones allow people to send digital pictures, surf the Web, receive updates on sports scores and check stock prices. The phones are not the only wireless technology, however, available to drivers.
Auto manufacturers are placing a variety of information and entertainment devices in new vehicles. In many cars, drivers and passengers now can check e-mail, follow navigation systems, receive fax messages and use a variety of gadgets that used to be available only with a fixed phone line.
Experts estimate that such in-vehicle technologies are likely to grow to a $30 billion to $50 billion industry by 2010.
IS THERE REALLY A RISK?
Although it is clear that both the volume and sophistication of the wireless communications technology have grown dramatically over the last decade, there is little consensus whether this poses a significant enough threat to traffic safety to justify legislation.
Proponents of restrictions have argued that the unique distraction caused by the use of phones and other in-vehicle communication devices takes a driver's attention away from the road more dangerously than other activities.
Communications technologies in the car require the driver to cognitively interact with the device for longer periods of time than other activities, thereby diminishing the ability to focus on the task of driving, according to those who support restrictions.
"Other activities are not sustained to the level of cell phones in the car," says Massachusetts Representative Peter Koutoujian, sponsor of cell phone legislation.
"All the studies I need are on the road," he says. "Other distractions, such as eating or drinking take only a few moments, and the cognitive function on the phone is much different from speaking with a passenger."
ONE OF MANY DISTRACTIONS
Restriction opponents have cited the value of wireless phones and other devices as a reason against singling them out for regulation.
"Phones are an incredibly valuable safety device," says Kimberly Kuo, spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "Every day, more than 160,000 emergency calls are placed on wireless phones. And they can be used to promote on-the-road safety programs, such as the Amber Alert system."
Opponents also argue that there is little evidence that wireless phones and other devices are any more distracting than other normal activities in the car, such as eating, grooming or using the radio.
"Based on research, studies rank cell phones between fifth and eighth on a list of distractions," argues Kuo. "Wireless is the new kid on the block, and people are trying to get comfortable with that. We need to remind people to drive safely, but legislation is not a quick cure-all."
In fact, there are few hard crash statistics on the topic. Until recently, only a handful of states collected information regarding the involvement of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes.
Although California, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have published data on the number of crashes that cited phones or CB radios as factors, the results are inconclusive. The existing state statistics indicate that cell phones are a factor in less than 1 percent of motor vehicle crashes in all six states.
Critics, however, have argued that the data are flawed because mobile phone use is difficult to detect at crash scenes. Unlike drunk driving or seat belts, investigators are forced to depend on witnesses and self-reporting by drivers to determine whether a cell phone was in use at the time of the crash, making the information less reliable.
A controversial report to the California Legislature highlights some of the problems with data collection. Last year, the commissioner of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) withdrew an initial draft of a report after a closer look at crash data indicated that some law enforcement agencies may have underreported the number of traffic crashes in their jurisdictions that involved cell phone use.
The original report found that during the final nine months of 2001, investigating officers determined that 913 accidents were directly linked to the driver's use of a mobile phone. Of those, 423 crashes resulted in injuries, and three involved a fatality.
Before the final report was released, however, a study of the same crash data by the Los Angeles Times found that during the same period, driver use of a mobile phone was linked to nearly 4,700 crashes.
A subsequent report by the California Highway Patrol indicated that from Jan. 1 through June 30, 2002, inattentive driving was cited as a factor for 5,677 people out of the 491,083 involved in crashes throughout the state. Cell phones were cited as a factor in 11 percent of inattention-related crashes, more than any other single factor.
Several academic studies have shown mixed results when attempting to determine the risk posed by a driver using a cell phone. A recent article published by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that cell phone use by drivers may cause approximately 2,600 deaths, 330,000 moderate to critical injuries, and 1.5 million instances of property damage in America per year.
The report conceded, however, that because information on cell phone use by motorists is limited, the uncertainty of the estimated effects of use is wide. In fact, the report concluded that fatality estimates range from 800 to 8,000 per year, and injury estimates range from 100,000 to 1 million per year.
A 2001 report by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center ranked cell phone use eighth on a list of distracting activities that were cited in crash reports. Researchers estimated that cell phone use caused 1.5 percent of distraction related crashes, placing it behind such activities as adjusting the radio, adjusting climate controls and eating or drinking. However, researchers acknowledged that missing data and small sample sizes could limit the conclusions drawn from the report. Dozens of other studies have further muddied the debate with conclusions backing both sides of the issue.
THE NEED FOR DATA
The lack of hard evidence has increased data collection efforts in the states. The national Governors Highway Safety Association released a revised edition of the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria in June, which included changes intended to help gauge the effects of driver distractions.
The criteria, which were developed in collaboration with NHTSA, the Federal Highway Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and numerous state and local agencies, describe what kinds of information states need to collect. The model criteria are intended to help policymakers paint a more accurate picture of the role of cell phones and other distractions in motor vehicle crashes.
"There is not enough conclusive data on the topic," says Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Administration. "The research is contradictory, and we want the best data that we can get. If it's included on crash forms it may help. There is a lot of room for error because it's difficult to prove, but any data we get is better than what we have now," he says.
State legislatures are also taking an active role in improving information collection.
Seventeen states now require law enforcement officers to collect information on the use of a cell phone in a crash, up from just two states five years ago. Additionally, legislatures in Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia passed measures to study the effects of wireless phones on traffic safety. Pennsylvania's Joint State Government Commission published a report on driver distractions and public safety in December 2001.
A special legislative task force in Delaware published a report on driver distractions this year.
NOT JUST BANS ANYMORE
A common misperception is that a lot of states are considering legislation to ban the use of all phones and wireless devices in the car. In fact, state lawmakers are contemplating a broad range of proposals. The most common approach--considered by legislators in 32 states this year--is to prohibit driver use of hand-held phones while allowing the use of hands-free devices. So far, only New York has passed the handheld phone restriction into law.
However, over the last year, legislators in California's Assembly, Connecticut's House and New Jersey's State Senate voted for similar measures, although none have won the approval of the full legislature.
Opinions differ whether hands-free requirements will improve traffic safety. Many academic studies--including one published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 and another published in Sweden this year--suggest that the cognitive distraction caused by cell phone use is a problem that cannot be eliminated by hands-free requirements. Most have concluded that there is no distinction in accident rates between drivers using hands-free and hand-held devices. However, proponents of hands-free bills see it differently.
"It's a bill that will save lives. It's just that simple," says Assemblyman Joe Simitian, sponsor of California's AB 45. "There is no study that says one hand is more safe than both hands. Even if hands-free is still a distraction, and this bill proposes a partial solution, a partial solution is better than no solution.
"We have a readily available technology that can save lives, why not use it," he says.
Connecticut Representative Richard Roy sees hands-free requirements as a way to begin tackling driver distraction concerns.
"I would like to address some distractions that we can mitigate," he says. "If we can get something on the books, we can gain a foothold on this issue."
Legislators have also broadened the cell phone debate to encompass particular drivers who might pose a greater risk on the road. Maine and New Jersey now prohibit drivers under the age of 21, who have only a learner's or instructional permit, from using any mobile phone while driving. It's an approach that was considered by eight other states this year and endorsed in a June 2003 report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
"Learning how to drive and getting comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster," says NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman. "Adding a distracting element like a cell phone is placing too many demands on a young driver's skills."
Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Tennessee prohibit school bus drivers from using cell phones. Four other states considered similar measures this year.
Ten states considered legislation in 2003 intended to address a wide range of activities in the vehicle, not just cell phone use.
"The cell phone is one of many distractions," says Senator Biagio "Billy" Ciotto, who sponsored such legislation in Connecticut this year. "I'm not opposed to prohibiting cell phone use," he says. "But I'm looking for statistics. Cell phones are ranked as sixth or seventh among factors that cause accidents. If we're fair to everyone, we shouldn't single out the cell phone."
LOCAL ACTIVITY DRIVES THE DEBATE
So far, much of the public policy debate regarding cell phone use while driving has occurred outside of Washington, D.C.
Although a bill was proposed in the U.S. Senate this year to require states to prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving, it is not expected to garner much support. Similar legislation in 2001 failed to make it out of committee.
In counties, cities and towns across the United States, the story is much different. Nearly two dozen local communities--in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah--have passed ordinances that restrict the use of cell phones while driving. USA Today has estimated that as many as 300 local jurisdictions have considered regulations.
Some state legislatures, concerned that local regulation might lead to a confusing piecemeal approach, have reacted to local ordinances by explicitly pre-empting them. Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and Oregon all specifically prohibit local jurisdictions from restricting cell phone use while driving.
MORE LEGISLATION LIKELY
As the number of people who own wireless phones continues to grow, consideration of legislation to restrict the use of them in the car seems likely to follow. Polls indicate that many drivers support initiatives to curb cell phone use in the car, even if they don't believe that the phone impairs their driving ability.
A March 2003 survey by the Gallup Organization found that 48 percent of drivers perceive that making outgoing calls can make driving dangerous. Forty-four percent of drivers perceive that receiving calls can be dangerous. Twice as many people--88 percent of drivers surveyed--indicated they support increased public awareness of the risk of wireless phone use while driving. Seventy-one percent of drivers support prohibitions on hand-held phones while driving, according to the Gallup report. And 67 percent support insurance penalties for being involved in a crash while using a cell phone; 61 percent support double or triple fines for traffic violations involving cell phone use; and 57 percent support a ban on all wireless phone use while a car is moving, except for emergency situations.
A working group formed by the National Conference of State Legislatures released a report on driver distraction in Match 2002, that included 14 principles for state legislatures. The Driver Focus and Technology Partnership--composed of state legislators, legislative staff, wireless service providers, auto manufacturers, interested companies, safety groups, academics and others--could not reach agreement on controversial issues, such as hands-free restrictions.
Participants, however, did agree on less contentious subjects, including the important role of states in policy decisions, the need for driver education, prohibitions on the use of phones by school bus drivers, and the need for better information. Although the group did not draft model driver distraction legislation, the findings may help guide future legislative activity.
While many activities can potentially divert driver attention, the cell phone is a highly noticeable distraction in the car, which makes it a target for restriction. It's easy to spot the profile of a driver with one hand to the ear and know that he or she might not be totally focused on the road. It may not be so easy to spot a driver who is tuning a radio or just thinking about something at work.
"Driver distraction has always been a problem," says Connecticut's Senator Ciotto. "But it's the cell phone that has drawn all the attention to the issue." How legislatures decide to package or separate cell phones from other distractions will help determine the future scope of legislative activity.
RELATED ARTICLE: Laws dealing with mobile phone use while driving.
Lawmakers in nearly every state this session considered measures dealing with the use of wireless phones while driving. Seventeen states have laws, and six have passed measures to study the effects of wireless phones on traffic safety.
Matt Sundeen is NCSL's expert on driver distractions.