In 1997 the use of cell phones had become so popular that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a study that assessed the potential dangers in the growing use of wireless phones. It was not the first, and it certainly was not the last study to be launched in pursuit of cell phone safety measures.
Since the invention of cell phones their usefulness and portability has lent them to mass production and consumption. The cost has exponentially deflated, as well, which means almost everyone can afford the convenience. Currently the data that exists suggests that legislative measures are responsive to consumer advocates for cell phone control as well as to lobbyists for the cell phone industry. In between, studies from safety agencies impart a less biased answer to the problem.
When the NHTSA released its study the report was responding to the alarming increase in driver distraction posed by cell phones. When analyzing crash data the agency discovered a wide berth of information, some that seemed potentially erroneous or inconclusive, at best, based on limitations in crash data. The summary of the report explains, “Although there is a serious under-reporting bias in the data, there are trends which show that cellular telephone use is a growing factor in crashes.” (NHTSA)
Two types of cell phone behavior typically lead to unsafe driving conditions:
Thought fumbling with the cell phone itself was a more dangerous activity than your conversation? Think again. That conversation involves quite large chunks of your thought, which according to study simulations sucks the life out of your driving concentration, especially your ability to react when seconds count.
The National Safety Council reports that in simulated driving tests, those subjects that were asked to carry on a cell phone conversation were so distracted that they went unaware of some traffic signals. The study tangentially examines the psychology of a conversation, especially the participation level required, versus other “listening” behaviors such as audio books and news radio. It seems that the more emotionally engaged the subject the less attentive to safety signals. The results were unaffected by whether the subject manually held the phone or if the mechanism was hands free, a reason why some believe hands-free initiatives are a weak and ineffectual way to control cell phone use while driving, and allegations that use of a cell phone impairs a driver’s ability as much as driving drunk.
In the “100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study,” conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the two above cell phone behaviors were very remarkable contributors to “crashes, near crashes, and incidents.” An incident was defined as a “conflict requiring an evasive maneuver” on the part of the driver. Given the fact that most studies have concurred that cell phones pose a threat to safety because of the behaviors they inspire, it is in keeping with the fact that most actual crashes were not the direct result of cell phone use. However, the huge increase in incidents is largely instigated by manual cell phone manipulation, with passenger interaction a close second.
Broken further down into cell phone tasks, the results showed overwhelmingly that talking on the cell phone led to the highest level of incidents, an astounding level of near crashes, and, where cell phone use contributed to driver distraction, cell phone conversation led to the most crashes. (VTTI)
Results that may lead to further cell phone modifications and safety features, such as voice-activated dialing and speed dialing, were the results that showed using a phone with either feature led to many fewer incidents.
So, the auto safety industry is able to isolate the two most concrete factors in cell phone use that lead to unsafe driving situations or to crashes. But, when polled, what do drivers think? Some studies have shown that drivers themselves believe that cell phones are a bigger distraction than any other behavior in which they engage while driving.
When it comes to manual manipulation of cell phones teens comprise perhaps the largest population of drivers distracted by dialing and text messaging. Texting, as it’s called, is the number one way teens communicate via cell phone with friends quickly and conveniently. But if you’ve ever tried to drive and text at the same time—business professionals are another group of heavy texters—you know the practice requires some attention.
Not only is texting a major cause of driving incidents among teens, but most of them know it. While this may seem alarming, it’s not out of line with the typical it’s-not-gonna-happen-to-me sensibility of most young adults. Combine this activity with the fact that most teens lack the driving experience and savvy of more mature drivers and the situation is potentially volatile.
How do you regulate text messaging? For teens the practice allows them complete privacy from nearby listeners; and they can carry on insignificant, quick response tasks to which a whole cell phone call seems less suited.
As if the safety issues associated with cell phones and driving was not enough, the NHTSA study also solidified a critically important concept relative to the abundance of cell phones on the road: 911 reports are more conveniently made from the road, but the system is often clogged with too many carbon copy calls for the same accident.
Reports on the impact of cell phones directly on vehicle crashes remains elusive. Many incident reports continue to lack the proper data collection that would consider driver behavior just before an accident. A handful of states include cell phone data on crash documents, but still advocates against their use manage to twist the results, which are unremarkable. For example, California in 2002 reported over 491,000 crashes in a 6-month time frame; of those over 5,600 reportedly were caused by inattention and of those only 600 were directly attributed to cell phone use.