More data needed to determine danger of cell-phone use

Dust flies as the car’s tires hit the dirt and gravel on shoulder of the road. The driver overcompensates and the car moves dangerously close to the centerline.

A drunken driver?

No, just another motorist talking on a cell phone.

This scene is becoming a common occurrence on America’s roadways as the number of cell-phone users continues to grow.

The number of wireless subscribers has climbed from 4.3 million to 173 million since 1990, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

While the convenience and security benefits of the phones are indisputable, the jury is still out on whether the phones pose a major safety threat.

It is commonly believed that cell-phone usage leads to more accidents, but data on cell phone-related accidents is just beginning to be collected.

Those who oppose placing restrictions on cell phone use while driving say the phones are just one of many driving distractions, and other distractions are actually more hazardous.

Cell phones rank between fifth and eighth on the list of driver distractions involved in traffic accidents, depending on which study you read. They trail other distractions such as rubbernecking, driver fatigue, looking at scenery, talking to passengers and fiddling with the radio.

But those who support cell-phone restrictions argue that cell-phone calls are a more significant and dangerous distraction because people become so absorbed in their conversations that they fail to concentrate on the road.

Several studies have found that cell phones contributed to what is known as “inattention blindness” meaning drivers tune out important road information such as pedestrians, road signs, traffic signals and clues about what’s up ahead.

Restrictions on use

The issue is of enough concern that many states and municipalities have proposed or passed cell phone legislation.

Currently New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Many other states restrict who may use cell phones, banning school-bus drivers and inexperienced drivers from using the devices.

A 2000 bill introduced in Kansas to restrict the use of cellular phones while driving failed.

State Rep. Don Dahl of Hillsboro said no legislation is pending in Kansas related to cell-phone usage, but that doesn’t mean the issue won’t be back on the agenda in the future.

“There are a lot more cell phones than four years ago,” he said. “It is frustrating. Someone will be driving 50 mph on the interstate or sitting at a stoplight in Wichita talking on their phone after the light turns green.”

Need for data

The Governors Highway Safety Association, representing highway safety officials from each state, has advised states to proceed cautiously with legislation until more data can be collected about the hazards of cell-phone use while driving.

The group has asked police across the country to note whether distractions are involved in traffic accidents to get a better idea of just how distractions, including cell-phone use, endanger others.

Collecting data is difficult since people are often reluctant to report certain types of distractions.

“The interesting thing from our perspective is I don’t think people will admit to it,” said Lee Becker, Marion County sheriff. “They’re not going to say that a cell phone caused the accident. But I’d wager that if you went back and checked the records, you might find something different.”

Another complicating factor regarding the impact of cell phones is that the ability to handle distractions varies greatly from person to person and situation to situation.

“I know from personal experience that different people have different degrees of skills,” Becker said. “We have a cell phone and we also have our radios in our vehicles with us.

“I answer my cell phone, but it’s a very distracting thing as a driver. I make a very conscious effort to pull over and stop because I lack the apparent ability to attend to several things at a time.”

Becker said he doesn’t know how many accidents are specifically attributable to cell phones, but driver distraction in general is certainly a factor.

“On some of the accidents out on (U.S. Highway) 50, the cruise control was still set when the trucks impacted the vehicles they ran into,” he said, referring to accidents in Marion County this summer that killed nine people.

“I’m not saying the cell phone came into play. I’m just saying somebody wasn’t paying attention.”

Hands-free feature

Some-cell phone users are opting for hands-free devices that enable them to keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road.

“Most phones now come with headset jacks, so that’s a pretty easy thing to add,” said Cora Friesen, manager of Quick-Flick Video/Radio Shack in Hillsboro. “But you’re not totally hands free with a headset.”

Hands-free devices may still require some use of hands for dialing or activating the phone.

“Some of the newer phones have speaker phones built into them so they can be totally hands free,” she said.

So far, the demand for headsets and hands-free devices has been pretty low, Friesen said.

“Most of the people I sold to for the holidays weren’t worried about headsets,” she said. “I can’t see the Kansas market being as concerned about it, as rural as we are. If you get in the heavily populated areas, you’re going to see a lot more people using headsets.”

Although the headsets and hands-free devices reduce the amount of time a driver spends fiddling with equipment, the devices don’t reduce the amount of concentration required for the phone call itself.

Some evidence suggests that hands-free cell-phone use may be just as distracting as hands-free use and may give drivers a false sense of security.

The wireless industry says the best bet for making the roads safer is to enforce current inattentive driving laws and educate the public about the responsible use of wireless phones.

Sheriff Becker agreed.

“It’s goofy to have accidents over conversations,” he said.

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