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Should cell phone use by drivers be illegal?

Consumer Reports News: July 20, 2009 02:34 PM

That is the question the New York Times invited an expert panel to address this weekend in its “Room for Debate” series. It is well-chronicled, cell phone use in a moving vehicle can be a dangerous distraction. But there is some debate on how to discourage phone use, or even if it should be done at all.

Among those panelists who each contributed an op-ed piece on the topic: David Champion, Consumer Reports; Janet P. Froetscher,  National Safety Council; Marcel Just and Tim Keller, psychologists, Carnegie Mellon University; Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason magazine; Anne McCartt, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do.”

Read the full blog series at

Below is the piece by Consumer Reports Deputy Technical Director David Champion:

Total bans may be impractical
There is no question that talking on a cellphone while driving is a dangerous distraction. The issue that has caused much debate is the magnitude of the distraction. Many studies have shown that the level of distraction has more to do with the intensity of the conversation and not whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free. An in-depth conversation that requires a good deal of thought causes a higher level of distraction than a relatively short “Can you pick up milk on the way home, Honey” type of call.

Both the length and intensity of the call increase the risk of a crash. The longer the call or the more in-depth or emotional the conversation is, the more the driver concentrates on the call rather than on his or her driving.

According to a study by the University of Utah cellphone users drive slower, pass less often and take longer to get to their destination. Compared with undistracted drivers, those who used cellphones drove an average of 2 miles per hour slower. This is a good sign, but even driving slowly can cause accidents because annoyed drivers who are being held up may drive recklessly to pass the cellphone user.

Whether it’s talking on a cellphone, eating or drinking, adjusting the radio, or programming your navigation system, increasingly, it seems that driving is not always the top priority in the car.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 100-Car Study indicated that if a driver takes his eyes off of the road for more than two seconds, it greatly increases the risk of a crash. Together with the intensity of the conversation, cellphone use is becoming a major cause of road crashes and fatalities. Texting while driving raises this level of risk exponentially. Ultimately, if the studies show that talking on a cellphone provides the equivalent impairment of having a blood alcohol level of 0.08% — the limit to drive a car in most states — the use of cellphones while driving should be banned.

This is probably an impractical solution, but since other restrictions all have their own issues, the best solution in the near term is to warn drivers with public service announcements of the risks involved with cellphone use and make the punishment for crashes caused by cellphone use extremely high.

Also read:
NHTSA withholds government study exposing cell phone driving dangers
Real cell-phone dangers exposed: Using wireless communication devices while driving

Texting while driving: A dangerous distraction

See Consumer Reports' cell phone and smart phone reviews, as well as reviews of GPS navigators with Bluetooth hands-free connectivity.

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