Cell phone use in car “worse than” drinking and driving

For Linda Mulkey of Salt Lake City, the sight of drivers using cell phones used to be unremarkable. No more.

“I want to pull them over and tell then what I’ve been through in the past year,” she said. On March 18, 2007, her 17-year-old daughter and only child, Lauren Mulkey, was killed when the vehicle she was driving was broadsided by a 19-year-old man who allegedly ran a red light while trying to retrieve a number on his handheld cell phone.

“There is no place for cell phones and driving – it cost my daughter her life,” Mulkey said.

Besides cell phones, modern technology has given drivers access to more and more devices, such as GPS navigation systems, MP3 players, PDAs and even TVs. But technology can’t give drivers additional attention to expend on those devices.

The result can lead to tragedy.

Despite incontrovertible evidence that speaking on the cell phone while driving is distracting – and has led to accidents – most Canadian provinces still don’t ban the practice.

The exceptions are Newfoundland and Labrador and – more recently – Nova Scotia and Quebec, where it’s now illegal in to use a hand-held cell phone while driving.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for instance, a driver who causes a collision by using a cellular phone or who is observed driving unsafely while using the device could be charged under a number of other provincial, territorial or federal laws including, but not limited to, those related to dangerous driving, careless driving and criminal negligence causing death or injury.

The law does not cover hands-free phones or other electronic devices, but the province advises drivers to avoid using any type of cell phone while operating a vehicle. Motorists caught talking on a hands-held cell phone while driving face fines ranging from $45 – $180, and will also be assigned four demerit points in keeping with similar imprudent driving penalties.

Currently no other Canadian jurisdictions ban using cell phones while driving, although some are considering legislation.

Ontario, for example, is considering a broader law that would deal with distractions caused by cell phones, mp3 players, and GPS systems. Such a law is needed to really ensure driver safety, says Marc Choma, director of communications for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

“If the government is really concerned about driving safety, that’s the best route,” he says. “But there’s only so much that legislation can do – it comes back to the common sense factor.”

In the U.S., however, lawmakers in many states have been cracking down on this problem.

But some experts complain (and Mulkey agrees) that the new laws only address one small aspect of the problem of driver distraction caused by technology — they say that even hands-free phoning is dangerous, along with all the other devices drivers are using.

Research suggests that the risk does not stem solely from whether one or both hands are on the steering wheel. Rather, its conversation with a party that’s not present that distracts drivers.

Automakers, meanwhile, appear content to assume that the new laws do address the problem and are building cars that allow hands-free phoning — while developing additional technology designed to counter driver distraction.

At last count (according to the Governors Highway Safety Association) five states had enacted statewide bans against driving while using a handheld cell phone. Certain local jurisdictions in other states have also done it. (See interactive map for details.)

Education vs. Legislation

Wireless industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association has stated that it favours driver education over legislation. It has offered the following tips “to ensure that their wireless phones don’t become a distraction:”

  • Be responsible behind the wheel … don’t text and drive.
  • Get to know your wireless device and its features, such as speed dial and redial.
  • Position your wireless device within easy reach.
  • Dial sensibly and assess the traffic; place calls when you are not moving.
  • Let the person you are speaking with know you are driving; if necessary suspend the call in heavy traffic or hazardous weather conditions.
  • Do not take notes or look up phone numbers while driving.
  • Use a hands-free device for convenience and comfort.
  • Do not engage in stressful or emotional conversations that might divert your attention from the road.
  • Dial 911 or other local emergency numbers to report serious emergencies — it’s free from your wireless phone.
  • Use your wireless phone to help others in emergencies.
  • Call roadside assistance or a special non-emergency wireless number when necessary.

The CWTA recommends that drivers only take phone calls when absolutely necessary, Choma says.

“If you do have to take it, we recommend that you take hands free because it does allow you to keep both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel,” he adds.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia restrict cell phone use by novice drivers, and 15 states plus the District of Columbia restrict cell phone use by school bus drivers when passengers are present, except in emergencies. As for texting, two states have banned it while driving, and others are expected to do so. (See interactive map for details.)

But so far, all the laws targeting phoning while driving only outlaw handheld phone use — implying that hands-free phoning is considered safe. And that’s what has some experts up in arms, because while hands-free calling eliminates the distraction of dialing and holding the phone, it doesn’t eliminate the distraction of conversing with someone who isn’t present.

Many point to experiments conducted by Franks Drews, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Not only did his studies find no difference between the level of distraction caused by hands-free and handheld phone conversations, but they also found that the level of impairment caused by talking on the phone exceeded the impairment caused by having a blood alcohol content of the average legal limit of .08%.

Drews explained that the experiments were done in a simulator with the same subjects driving under three conditions: unimpaired, conversing on the phone, and dosed with vodka to the legal limit.

“People who were intoxicated were showing fewer accidents than those who were talking on the phone,” he said. “It is clear that a driver who is talking on the phone is very much impaired, beyond the level that society has determined to be safe. The cognitive activity of participating in the conversation draws your attention from the immediate environment, and you prioritize the conversation task higher than the task of driving.”

He calculated that the odds of getting into an accident are four to five times higher if you are talking on a phone than they are if you are unimpaired (and 8.3 times higher if you are texting).

Fourfold crash risk

Drews’ figures are close to those given by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. Based on studies of cell phone records of people brought to emergency rooms after traffic accidents in Australia and Canada, “We found that talking on the phone increased the risk of an injury crash fourfold,” said Anne McCartt, vice president at the institute. “We found no significant difference in risk depending on whether it was a handheld or hands-free phone.”

As for conversing with passengers inside the car, Drews and McCartt agreed that there is no comparable risk. Passengers — especially those who are adults — know that their lives are on the line, and act accordingly, they indicated.

“The passenger is participating in the driving experience, and knows when not to talk, or to offer a warning,” McCartt noted. “On the phone, the person on the other end has no idea what is going on, and they are going to keep talking and expecting a response even if there is a tractor-trailer stopped in front of you.”

“We have found that if you have a passenger with you who has a driver’s license, that passenger supports you in the task of driving,” Drews agreed.

Taking a different view of the issue, and the research, is Louis Tijerina, senior technical specialist in Ford Motor Co.’s Active Safety Research and Advanced Engineering Group. “Everyone is responsible for managing their behavior as they drive, and there is evidence that people generally do that in a prudent manner,” he said.

Tijerina dismissed simulator studies like Drews’ in favor of “naturalistic” studies of actual driving in real traffic. These indicate that drivers manage their behavior on the basis of perceived risks, and perform extraneous tasks when their driving skills are least needed, he said.

100-car study

He especially emphasized the results of the so-called “100-Car Study”. Conducted about six years ago by Virginia Tech University, the study involved outfitting 100 cars with five video cameras each to continuously monitor the drivers’ actions and surroundings. The experiment gathered 42,000 hours of data, including 82 accidents, 761 near accidents and 8,295 lesser incidents such as evasive maneuvers.

A Virginia Tech spokesperson said that the data showed that talking on the phone increased the likelihood of an accident by a factor of 1.3. The researchers weren’t able to compare hands-free vs. handheld calling because so few drivers at the time had hands-free systems. However, pushing buttons — be it on a cell phone, a PDA or an MP3 player — increased the chances of an accident by a factor of 2.8.

Tijerin’s position is that 1.3 isn’t materially higher than 1.0, indicating that being on the phone by itself is not a traffic safety issue. Meanwhile 2.8 is a material difference, but he believes the distraction of dialing can be eliminated with voice-activated hands-free technology.

An overview of the study stated the following: “While cell phone use contributed much more frequently to incidents and near-crashes than any other secondary task, cell phone use did not contribute to any lead vehicle conflict crashes.”

However, the overview also stated that “cell phone use did contribute to other types of crashes, such as run off road, single vehicle conflict (driver ran into a barricade), and following vehicle conflict (subject vehicle was struck).”

It also stated “Wireless devices (primarily cell phones but also including PDAs) were the most frequent contributing factor for [incidents requiring evasive action to avoid a crash].”

Perhaps based upon the 1.3 vs. 2.8 risk factors — or simply because so many people phone while driving — automakers are embracing hands-free as the safer alternative. Tijerina touted Ford’s recent unveiling of Sync, a voice interface that allows hands-free dialing. A General Motors Corp. spokesperson touted the company’s OnStar hands-free phone system. And a Chrysler Corp. spokesperson touted that automaker’s UConnect system, which interacts with drivers’ Bluetooth-enabled phones.

As mentioned, MP3 players can also distract drivers. No states have moved to outlaw the use of MP3 players while driving, and McCartt said there has been no significant research on MP3 players and driver distraction. Automakers, however, are taking the gadget seriously. Ford’s Sync system can be used to control an attached MP3 player, and the Chrysler UConnect system can be used to select radio stations.

Delphi Corp., a Troy, Mich.-based maker of auto components, plans to take hands-free technology a step further. It has demonstrated a concept car with a flat-panel display that mimics the car’s gauges. The panel features a reconfigurable layout, plus a heads-up display (HUD) that makes text appear to float in the air in front of the driver. The HUD can show various types of information, including the car’s speed and information from the driver’s MP3 player.

Some cars — such as the Chevrolet Corvette and the Pontiac Grand Prix — come from the factory with HUDs installed, and more cars are expected to have factory-installed HUDs in the future.

And what about GPS?

Meanwhile, using GPS navigation systems can involve extensive button-pushing, but there has been no move to outlaw them, either. McCartt noted that most in-car navigation systems use synthesized speech to give directions, so the driver doesn’t have to look at the screen.

The GM models in particular won’t let you input data while the car is in motion. But the driver could bring along a third-party unit with no such restrictions, she cautioned.

Other than a study in Taiwan indicating that drivers are more efficient when they’re using a GPS tool than they are when using a map, “there have been no evaluations of GPS units on crash risk that we know of,” McCartt said. But she noted that there have been studies upholding the fairly obvious theory that voice input is less distracting for a driver than pushing buttons.

But even hands-free GPS systems can cause problems for drivers who follow their units’ directions despite road signs and common sense that indicate they shouldn’t and get into accidents.

The legal angle

Of course, lawsuits can have as much impact as legislation. As for what trial lawyers think about technology and distracted drivers, “There is no ballooning legal industry around distracted driver cases, but that is because the issue is still working its way through the court system,” said Anne M. Talcott, an attorney in the Portland, Ore., office of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt who has written about the issue.

But as time passes, she added, “I think we will see more and more cases about whether you can be negligent if you complied with the statutes [and used a hands-free phone]. My takeaway is that the legislation is not focusing on the real problem.”

But by the time the issue works its way through the legal system, the driving experience may have changed radically as a result of automakers’ efforts to address the problem of technology-distracted drivers by, ironically, developing more technology.

At Ford, forward-collision warning systems, lane-departure detection technology and blind spot warning systems are in the works, Tijerina said.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner, in a January speech, described the company’s intention to introduce a vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) transponder system so that cars within a quarter-mile of each other can inform each other of their position and speed. GM is also working toward autonomous driving systems, and GM last year participated in the DARPA Urban Challenge, in which vehicles try to navigate a race course with no human intervention, he added.

A Chrysler representative said the company’s UConnect system has a speech-recognition vocabulary of 100,000 words that can be used to enter locations into the navigation system, select radio stations and access voice mail.

Chrysler has also brought out a blind-spot monitoring system for certain models, and a system that monitors the space behind the car when it’s in reverse, she said.

In the previously described Delphi system and some other systems, mirrors are replaced by cameras whose output is displayed on the GPS screen in the middle of the dashboard.

But none of the auto industry’s plans change the fact that, as drivers gain access to more and more technology, the amount of attention they can expend will remain fixed.

Mulkey, meanwhile, has become an activist on the issue. She has set up a Web site called “Hang Up — Save a Life,” and speaks to school and business groups about the dangers of driving while phoning. When she meets with these groups, she hands out bumper stickers with the motto.

“We are not going to change everybody’s mind, unfortunately,” she said. “Today, I turn off my cell phone while I’m driving. If I forget and it rings, I won’t answer it until I pull over to a safe spot.”

With files from Joaquim P. Menezes

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