Cell Phone Use While Driving Increases Crash Risk

New Legislative Bans and Limits Pending Nationwide

By Gay Frankenfield, RN
WebMD Medical News

Feb. 24, 2000 (Atlanta) -- In response to growing evidence that motorists' use of cell phones increases crash risk, two municipalities have passed ordinances limiting their use. As similar legislation is proposed nationwide, the cell phone industry has launched a public education campaign.

In September, Brooklyn, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, passed the first ordinance banning cell phone use while driving. Since then, the Philadelphia suburb Hilltown, Pa., enacted a similar ban on the use of hand-held cell phones. Restrictive legislation is now pending in eight states, although earlier efforts have failed.

"At least 15 states have proposed bills restricting cell phone use by motorists, only to have the measures die in committee," says Matt Sundeen, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Part of the reason is the political clout of 76 million cell phone users. Also, just about every politician owns and uses a cell phone." But the link between cell phones and crash risk continues to grow, and 300 municipalities are considering such ordinances.

In 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that motorists who use cell phones are four times more likely to crash, and equated their use with drunk driving. In a three-year study of Oklahoma crash data, researchers linked cell phone use with a ninefold increase in fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Oklahoma is the only state to have such data.

In a new report on wireless communications, the NHTSA encouraged state and local officials to begin tracking cell phone use in related traffic warnings, citations, and crash investigations. Recognizing the safety benefits of cell phones and describing a nationwide ban as unrealistic, the report also called for public education about the hazards of driver distraction. In response, the cell phone industry has launched a public awareness campaign.

"Every day, there are 100,000 calls to 911 from cell phones," says Lisa Ihde, a spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA). "And these calls are saving lives by decreasing emergency response times. But cell phones should be used responsibly, so we're partnering with local, state, and federal agencies to raise public awareness with our 'Ten Tips' campaign."

Because the NHTSA differentiates between the effects of "simple" and "cognitively demanding" cell phone conversation, the CTIA's tips discourage stressful or emotional conversation and encourage the use of hands-free features. But it's probably too little and too late for a mother in mourning.

"I watched my daughter die," says Patricia Pena, the mother of two-year-old Morgan Lee, who was killed in her car seat when the car in which she was riding was struck by a motorist using a cell phone. "And I'd like to prevent others from going through it," she says. "People need to know that manufacturers warn against use of cell phones when cars are in motion." Pena tells WebMD that she and her husband both continue to use cell phones.

"The Hilltown ordinance was adopted after my daughter's death, and now 'Morgan's Bill' is before the state legislature. We're not trying to eliminate cell phones," says Pena. "We just want people to pull over." Pena says using a cell phone while driving is just too dangerous, and the insurance industry agrees.

"Cells phones are an excellent safety device on the open road, but they're strongly linked with serious accidents in industry research," says Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute. "So we recommend pulling over before making calls."

Already growing at a rate of 40% per year, the use of cellular communications is likely to increase as wireless Internet access, fax machines, and televisions are introduced. According to NHTSA, 85% of all cellular customers are using the devices while driving.


Vital Information:

  • There is mounting evidence that talking on a cell phone while driving contributes to increased car accidents and fatalities, and many state and local governments are considering restrictive legislation.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is calling for a public education campaign about the dangers of using cell phones while driving.
  • Motorists may want to pull over or use hands-free technology, and should avoid emotional or stressful conversations.


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