Hand-held cell phone bans miss the mark

By Bill Holloway

According to recently published research, California’s ban on driving while using hand-held cellphones, implemented in 2008, appears to have had no impact on crash rates. Researchers, focusing on the six months before and after the ban was implemented, were unable to identify any change in accident frequency attributable to the ban. Previous analyses of crash rates in Connecticut, New York, Washington, D.C., and California before and after implementation of their hand-held cellphone bans by the Highway Loss Data Institute echoed this finding. Despite their dubious effectiveness, 14 states currently prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones.

This focus on hand-held devices, while largely ignoring the risks associated with hands-free phones, is misguided. A literature review conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada in 2009 concluded that, based on available research, the use of hands-free cellphones is no safer than using hand-held phones while driving. Some studies have even indicated that drivers mitigate the negative effects of talking on their cellphones by slowing down when using hand-held devices but fail to do so when using hands-free phones, making hands-free cellphones potentially more dangerous than hand-held phones.

Despite the evidence, no states impose blanket restrictions on the use of cellphones, including hands-free devices, while driving.  There are 20 states that prohibit school bus drivers from using cellphones while driving and 38 that prohibit cellphone use by novice drivers. With studies indicating that the impacts of even hands-free cellphone use on driving ability are akin to alcohol intoxication, and so many states already recognizing the safety impacts with restrictions on certain drivers, the big question is when legislators and the public will recognize that the primary problem associated with cellphone use while driving is mental distraction, a problem that can’t be cured with an earpiece.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.