Cellphone use and driving don’t mix

02Aug09

In 2003, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed to do a study of 10,000 drivers to determine the risk of cellphone use while driving. The NHTSA wanted this large study to conclusively say what smaller studies have said: driving while talking on a cellphone  is dangerous.

The proposal was allowed to die after members of the US Congress and the Department of Transportation threatened the NHTSA with funding cuts. The reason: it will enrage American drivers and the telecos already have ‘invested’ millions of dollars into congress.

Dead was a draft letter the highway safety agency prepared for (Transportation Secretary Norman) Mineta to send to governors. The letter, as well as a draft policy, said that driver distraction contributes to a quarter of traffic accidents and “the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities.’’ The letter also stated that hands-free phones were no more safe than handheld phones and thus any laws that would ban handheld phones but permit hands-free devices “will not be effective’’ and “may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe.’’ (Boston Globe)

This fact was revealed under the US’s Freedom of Information Act. It is hoped that the Obama administration will soon reveal the NHTSA 2003 efforts and commission the 10,000-driver study.

The real score

Studies have repeatedly shown the link between cellphone use while driving and the increased risk for crashes or collisions. A New England Journal of Medicine study concluded that using a cellphone while driving increased the risk of a collision four times. Another study by the George Institute for International Health at the University of Sydney also reached the same number: a fourfold increase in the likelihood of crashing when drivers we’re talking on their mobile phones while driving. The same study also concluded that using a hand-free set does not make things any safer. The Department of Psychology at the University of Utah has also demonstrated that mobile phone users exhibit greater impairment (PDF) as compared to drunks when behind the wheel.

Hear that?

You are four times more likely to hit another car, a bike, a pedestrian, or a child, when you’re yakking on the cellphone and driving at the same time. Hands-free doesn’t make it any safer and you’re worse than a drunk when you’re using your cellphone while driving.

Wait, there’s more

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) released data from several large-scale driving studies revealing that SMS or text messaging while driving increases crash or a near-crash risk 23-fold. Even though this particular data only involves heavy vehicle or truck drivers, the same thing probably holds true for light vehicle or car drivers.

The institute also found out that teens have the greater tendency to use their cell phones while driving and are involved in more risky situations than adults. Handset use doesn’t make cellphone driving any safer just like what other studies have concluded. Voice-activated systems somewhat mitigate the hazards of cellphone driving, as long as the system doesn’t make the driver take his eyes off the road too often or too long.

What ought to be done

Transportations agencies and law enforcement should take heed what these studies have to say: mobile phone use while driving is dangerous. Borrowing from VTTI’s recommendations, the use of a cellphone, whether to dial, talk, or text message, should be banned in moving vehicles for all drivers. Hands-free can be used as long as it can be proven that the system does not cause drivers to take their eyes off the road while driving too frequently or for long periods of time. Newly licensed teens, or maybe even adults, should be banned in using a cellphone while driving.

I wish for the strict enforcement of the ban on cellphone use while driving here in the Philippines. Who knows how many accidents have already been caused just because the driver had to take that one phone call or reply to that one text.

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