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Phones and driving - mystery of the crashes

By: staff

Date: Wednesday, 29. October 2008

All around the world, laws banning mobile phone use while driving are being pushed through legislatures. The laws appear to be driven by two kinds of motivation: public annoyance at seeing drivers using phones, and a series of often-quoted studies which equate phone use with drunken driving and increased crash risk of as much as 4-5 times normal.

However, there is a major question mark hanging over all of this: Over the past two decades there has been an explosive increase in the use of cell phones by drivers. Has the crash rate increased explosively as well? Apparently, it has not.

A survey of United States usage carried out by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) indicates that the volume of calls has grown from only a few thousand in 1983 to 9 million in 1992, 38 million in 1996, 97 million in 2000, and 134 million in 2002.


Figures for cell phone use while driving would be hard to come by, but by extension we can conclude that there has been a similar exponential rise.

Hook these kinds of figures up to the four-fold increase in crash risk calculated by some researchers and it would seem logical to see a dramatic rise in traffic crash statistics.

Has this happened? Statistics from the NHTSA, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, indicate the opposite: no major trend in overall fatal crash numbers, and a steady, gradual decline in fatal crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

In the U.S., for example, there were 36,254 fatal crashes recorded in 1994. That figure rose to 39,252 in 2005 and dropped back a bit to 38,588 in 2006 -- this despite a significant increase in traffic over those years. Fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled dropped steadily from 1.73 in 1994 to 1.41 in 2006. ( Fars report )

There's a disconnect between these statistics and the rationale behind cell-phone bans, and researchers are having difficulty explaining it.

"The lack of crash data does not mean there is not a problem," says researcher Michael Goodman of NHTSA. "The data does not exist because it is not collected by the state authorities. This situation may soon change as the various jurisdictions examine the issue more closely," Goodman wrote in an online forum on driver distraction organized by the NHTSA several years ago.

Some researchers offer the explanation that other safety measures (such as improved car design, seatbelt laws, better emergency responses) may have cancelled out the crashes caused by phones. However, that explanation seems highly speculative at best.

What will laws do?

Larry Lonero is an expert on driver behavior and has produced reports on this topic for major safety organizations and governments. He lives in Canada's province of Ontario, which is holding out against a cell-phone ban.

Lonero's main beef is that laws banning cell-phones are typically weak and seem more motivated by political expediency than real concern for results.

"What typically happens with weak traffic laws is an initial effect, which goes away after a few months, presumably as people find that the risk of getting caught is almost zero," Lonero says. "That's what happened with New York's cell phone law -- it makes no difference to actual hand-held phone use by drivers."

"There are ways to change drivers' behaviours," adds Lonero, "but they are more complicated than just passing a law against some established cultural practice. They are also more expensive, both in terms of financial and political capital ."

Recently, local Member of the Provincial Parliament, John O'Toole presented a cell-phone ban bill to the Ontario legislature for the sixth time, prompting a strong supporting editorial in the influential Toronto Star newspaper urging politicians to vote for "common sense" and push the bill through.

This riled Lonero, who saw it as another uninformed attempt to foist a window-dressing safety measure on the public.

Like most laws against phone use while driving, the legislation only relates to hand-held use. But research up to now indicates that there is little or no difference between hand-held and hands free phones in terms of distraction. "The question that needs to be asked here," says Lonero, "is whether the proposed law would have any actual effect. It likely would not."

However, Lonero is not just critical of what he sees as political expediency in pushing through laws that lack the necessary follow-through to be effective. He also takes the media to task for uncritically supporting the laws because they are a popular cause.

"The media win because they can fill space clucking about a peripheral safety issue without having to spend any effort in getting to the real story. Politicians win by demanding that something be done, and it's really better if what's done is actually ineffective, because then drivers (mostly voters) are not bothered by having to change their behaviour."

Bigger stakes

The issue of driver distractions and driving laws is a crucial one for the auto industry and for an emerging new industry described as 'Automotive Telematics.' The driver of the future is envisioned as being "connected." The hot features of new cars are now navigation systems, traffic information, and access to "location-based services (LBS)"

LBS is the new buzz term in the auto industry. Telematics offers drivers a whole new relationship with their environment by providing information on everything from restaurants and gas stations to businesses, entertainment and tourist attractions. The key technologies of LBS are cell phones, the internet, and GPS navigations systems.

Drivers of the future, say the telematics stakeholders, will be much more concerned with spending their driving time productively, and with being entertained as they go, than with horsepower and quick transport from A to B.

In short, they will multi-task much more than they used to, and that means a huge safety headache for auto and auto-related industries who might potentially be sued if they provide an overly-distractive car feature that creates a safety hazard for drivers.

Safety issues

"Multi-tasking while driving has become very common," comments Canada Safety Council president Emile Therien. "Drivers eat, use laptop computers, talk on the phone, and try to stop their kids from fighting. Any distraction can be dangerous if it takes your attention off the road."

"Driving is one of the most demanding tasks we do," warns Therien, "yet a lot of drivers treat it as a secondary activity."

That last part is a crucial observation. It has long been recognized by driving researchers that, apart from very brief periods, the act of driving does not occupy all of our attention. Safety advocates can urge "100% attention to driving" 'til the cows come home, but it's not going to happen.

In short, we drivers are attention dividers, attention allocators. That's how our brains are wired. When we drive, our first priority for attention has to be our driving, but we have to learn to deal with distractions as part of the job.

When can we take our eyes off the road and for how long? Do we have time to drink from a bottle of water, to adjust the radio, to look down and see what song is playing? These questions have to be answered successfully by drivers on a moment-to-moment basis.

Every distraction from the task is a balance of risk. So where does phone use fit into this balance?


Dave Willis, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas Transportation Institute, thinks a phone ban, especially one that is selective to hand-held phones, is "totally counterproductive."

"The problem with cell phones is the attentional demand of the conversation. It's not the act of manipulating the phone," he told the Kentucky Kernel publication recently." This tells people that it's OK to yak while driving, and that's simply not the case."

If these bills become laws, the Kernel editors comment, "they would set an interesting precedent as to what motorists can do in their vehicles. Bills banning smoking or eating fast food while driving could follow. And truckers could be banned from using hand-held two-way radios.

This presents legislators with some interesting and mostly unpalatable options:

ban hand-held use (because it's politically easier to do and enforce)

ban all phone use (an enforcement nightmare, and very likely unpopular)

ban all distractions (a huge hit on personal freedoms)

penalize bad driving (the laws are there already)

It's in the public interest to look past phone-rage and simplistic responses and find truly effective ways to counter the mounting hazards of driver distraction.

Some talking points

Do drivers compensate for their phone use by being more careful?

Are we dodging the enforcement issue with easy laws?

Is raising driving standards the real issue?

Are we racheting away individual freedoms with ineffective laws?

Are we missing the benefits of communicating on the go?

How can technology help (collision avoidance radar, etc.)?

Further comments to this article have been disabled.

All Comments (14)

Showing 1 - 14 comments


This looks very difficult to follow.
David at


These rules looks like difficult to follow. But it is very useful for us if we follow them and make it as a habit.


Why should they professional seo be penalized by the other who are website optimizer stupid real soft about it and try testing as they drive.

Jose Parroha,

University of Utah psychologists have published a study showing that motorists who talk on handheld or hands-free cellular phones are as impaired as drunken drivers.



Using a mobile while driving is just hoping to have an accident, texting is even worse research has shown.

Jon of


take a look at our article about korean cab drivers and watching TV on the dash.

We'd like to get opinions on this


i love how u don't have 2 b a member to leave a comment!


can u shorten it?

Defensive Driving,

Even though laws are created every day regarding this, more and more accidents happen because of careless drivers who don't care to talk while driving. The rules has to be made more strict to see any improvement.


Actually we're not for the cell phone ban. Let's just have laws against bad driving. We already have laws against distracted driving.

Some experts say the laws against cell hone use are easy to pass so politicians like them. They're not easy to enforce, so police don't like them that much.

Ideally, drivers should understand more about distractions and how to deal with them while driving.



The page is suggesting that cellphone use is just another distraction available to drivers, that drivers must learn to compensate for.

Drivers also regularly converse with passengers. This conversation is also a distraction. Are you advocating that conversation in motor vehicles be banned, as "driving and talking to people is dangerous!"?.

Johanna Capps,

Anyone who thinks that this page is pointless and dumb, can't handle the responsiblity that comes with driving! Admit it! driving and using a cellphone is dangerous!


Drivers have to learn when they can do some distracting task and when not. Some people are very good at this. Why should they be penalized by the other who are stupid about it and try texting as they drive


this has lots of interesting information mabey you can ad some info from canada (positive)

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