The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association reports that more than 231 million people are currently subscribed to wireless communication devices, namely cell phones, compared to roughly 4.3 million in 1990. This increase in cell phone usage has resulted in a rise in the number of people using the devices while driving.
Since 2001, when the first law banning hand-held cell-phone use while driving was passed in New York State, the subject has been a hotly contested issue. There has been sharp disagreement as to exactly how much of a hazard talking on a cell phone while driving actually creates. The results of several recent studies indicate that cell phone use while driving isn’t the most dangerous distraction. However, because it is so widespread, it is the most common cause of crashes and near crashes resulting from the driver being distracted.
An August 2006 survey conducted by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety studied teenagers use of text messaging while driving. The research showed that teens considered sending text messages to be their biggest distraction. Of those polled, 37 percent said that text messaging was extremely or very distracting.
An April 2006 study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discovered that approximately 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes resulted from some kind of driver distraction within three seconds of the event. The study also found that the most common distraction is the use of cell phones. However, the researchers went on to note that cell phone use is far less likely to be the cause of a crash or near crash than other distractions. They found that reaching for a moving object such as a falling cup increased the risk of a crash or near crash by 9 times, while talking on a hand-held cell phone only increased the risk by 1.3 times.
The results of the Virginia Tech study confirm an August 2003 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety which concluded that drivers are decidedly less distracted by their cell phones than by other activities, such as reaching for items on the seat or in the glove compartment or talking to passengers. The AAA study was based on an analysis of videotapes from cameras installed in the cars of 70 drivers in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Research conducted in July 2005 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety discovered that motorists who use cell phones while driving are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to cause injury to themselves. The results also showed that banning hand-held phone use and mandating that drivers switch to hand-free phones doesn’t improve safety. The study found that injury crash risk didn’t vary with the type of phone, because the driver was still distracted by the conversation.