Hands-free Calling Still Dangerous

Recent studies of car crashes find no significant safety distinction between hands-free and hand-held cell phones

Each year, over 6 million police-reported automobile crashes occur and most experts agree that unreported accidents equal or exceed that number. Deaths and serious injuries resulting from many of these crashes, aside from the personal devastation, cost billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. Sadly, most of these crashes are avoidable because they are due to inattention behind the wheel. Whether a driver has been drinking or is sleepy or might simply be distracted (eating, talking, tuning the radio, etc.) the all-too-often result is a crash. Distracted drivers account for one in four traffic accidents, according to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) data, so it is critically important to minimize distractions while driving.

Unfortunately, the potential for distraction in vehicles is increasing and the most prominent influencer is the cell phone. Its use is very tempting to all of us as we roll down the highway, especially while moving in slow traffic. The cell phone allows us to notify family members of delays, make hotel reservations, get directions and return the day’s business calls during that "wasted" driving time. In an era of instant communication the cell phone is well worth its costs, but study after study shows that using a cellphone while driving creates one of the most serious distractions, and according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), results in a fourfold increase in crash likelihood.

Interestingly, results show cell phone use is consistent among drivers, with male and female drivers experiencing similar levels of risk, as well as senior drivers and drivers under 30. The study, which used cell phone billing records and interviews with crash victims to form the basis for its data, also found that, generally, weather played virtually no measurable role, and that there was no significant distinction between hands-free and hand-held cell phones. The conclusion: drivers should concentrate on the road when operating their cars and try not to be tempted by distractions.

Now, For The Reality

In a perfect world this would be the simple answer, but ours is anything but a perfect world. Therefore, the next best approach is to make cell phone use as minimally distracting as possible. A number of approaches are currently being used around the country, but it will be a while before the statistics showing effectiveness are gathered.

Young Drivers and inexperienced older drivers are the most likely to be distracted while driving. To counteract the problem twelve states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) and D.C. restrict the use of cellular phones by teens in the graduated licensing system. Some other states have secondary enforcement laws, meaning the ban on cell phone use can only be enforced if the driver has been stopped for another infraction. Eleven states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas) and D.C. prohibit the use of all cellular phones while driving a school bus.

Hand-Held Phones are widely believed to pose the greatest risk, although recent data shows that this might not be the case. Nonetheless, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia each have enacted a jurisdiction-wide ban on driving while talking on a handheld cellular phone. Certain localities have enacted restrictions on their use as well, including: Chicago, IL; Brookline, MA; Detroit, MI; Sante Fe, NM; Brooklyn, NY; and several localities near Philadelphia, PA.

Hands-Free Phones are fast becoming the device of choice for those who wish to talk while driving. These phones come in a variety of configurations, both in-car and portable. Many manufacturers now offer voice-activated phone capability in their option packages. These are frequently coupled with telematics (concierge assistance, traffic updates, etc.) and NAV systems, and operate through the vehicle’s sound system.

Portable hands-free phones range from simple models with a plug-in earpiece to Bluetooth models that have special DriveBlue units that detect an incoming call to the cell phone and automatically reroute it to the earpiece. Users can utilize voice-activated dialing features without having to direct attention to the phone’s keypad.

In-car cell phone mounts are available in a variety of designs and purposes. Some simply attach the phone to the dash with Velcro, magnets, friction pads or clips so that the driver can utilize the phone’s speaker. Others connect to the audio system to allow the driver to listen easily.

Some cell phone manufacturers offer models specifically designed to make them easier to use in a car. Large, easy to read keypads and one-touch dialing features enable drivers to make calls while quickly glancing away from the windshield. Others are experimenting with "remote caller notification" features that, when commercially available, will tell the caller that the person he/she’s talking to is currently in a moving vehicle and to make the conversation as short as possible.

Safety First

The bottom line for cell phone use in cars is to be as safe as possible. Ideally, it is far better to stop the vehicle on the side of the road and make the call, but few drivers do so. Therefore, it is important to take the use of cell phones seriously and exercise caution when talking while driving. Place only important calls and keep conversations short. No matter how hard we try to keep from being distracted we have to remember that the automobile is the world’s most dangerous phone booth!

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