Americans can’t be parted from their cell phones, especially when they are driving. A recent survey conducted by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated that approximately 10% of drivers on the road are talking on their cell phones when behind the wheel. This is a 25% increase from 2004 levels. Sixty percent of those drivers are using handheld phones, up from 50% last year. Clearly the cell phone has gone from emergency aid to chic accessory.
Even though talking on the cell phone while driving might be de rigueur for the fashion forward, many state governments do not feel the same way. Although there is no federal law limiting cell phone use while driving, many states have passed their own legislation. For example, some states have banned the use of handheld devices while driving, but allow the use of hands-free devices. Other states have chosen to put restrictions on driver classifications, such as bus drivers or under 30 drivers, rather than create a general ban on cell phone use.
The frenzy surrounding cell phone use while driving stems from studies which indicate that drivers who talk on the phone are more likely to cause accidents. One recent study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that both handheld and hands-free phones increased the risk of a crash. The test group included 456 participants who used a cell phone and were treated in emergency rooms for injuries suffered in crashes from April 2002 to July 2004. By using phone records and interviews, the Institute calculated the increased risk of a crash by comparing phone use during the 10 minutes prior to a participant’s crash, along with their phone use during the previous week.
The increased risk stems from a situation that was dubbed “inattention blindness,” by researchers David Strayer, Frank Drews and William Johnston in a 2003 study conducted at the University of Utah. They discovered that talking on cell phones while driving diverts the driver’s attention from their visual environment, making them unable to recognize objects encountered in their visual field. One would think that using a hands-free phone would be less distracting, thus not increasing the risk of inattention blindness as much as using a hand-held phone. But, the researches found that either phone type increases the risk of accident. Why? Well, current hands-free phones aren’t really hands-free. Only cell phones that are fully voice activated might be less likely to increase the risk of inattention blindness. However, further studies will need to be conducted to determine if that is true.
Meanwhile, when you are using your cell phone while operating your car, keep this in mind. In October 2004, a Virginia jury ordered Jane Wagner, a former lawyer, who was accused of driving and talking on her cell phone when she struck and killed a teenager, to pay the victim’s family $2 million. Wagner served one year in jail after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Upon conviction, she also forfeited her license to practice law.