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19 Mar 2008, 11:59PM PT

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What Kind Of Laws Are Reasonable For Driving While Talking On The Phone?


Closed: 19 Mar 2008, 11:59PM PT

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While the threat to safety from driving and talking on a cell phone can be debated, there are already several laws around the US that prohibit such actions. However, there is no federal regulation -- just recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that all states should restrict certain drivers from using cell phones while driving. So which states have enacted the most reasonable regulations against cell phone use while driving? Or (if there aren't any existing laws that you like) what kind of rules should be proposed to encourage common sense in driving? Are hands-free accessories really effective? Will factory-installed systems in the dashboard help? With GPS navigation and other advanced wireless services coming to more phones, what exceptions should be made (if any) to laws against driving while using mobile phones?

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The case for an outright ban on cellphone use while driving:

Approximately 40,000 fatalities from car crashes per year in the US alone (www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,146212,00.html )

The cost to consumers (insurance, etc) of car crashes in the US per year is 160 Billion dollars (abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=4390478)

 Distracted drivers are suspected behind 80% of all crashes (car-reviews.automobile.com/news/distracted-drivers-cause-80-percent-of-accident s/1828/)


Talking on a cellphone may not increase the chances of a crash, but the acts of fumbling around with a cellphone, dialing it, etc. are extremely dangerous.  Eliminating these by banning cellphone use might save a few percent off of each of these numbers, or still a few BILLION dollars and a few THOUSAND lives per year.



 Enforcing the laws most states have in place already regarding distractions while driving should be sufficient enough to guide the nation. California for example, has a law that makes it illegal to have "driving distractions" and simply added mobile phones to the list. It is common sense to eliminate driving distractions, and the term allows for flexibility and change down the road as technology evolves. 

However, the lobby from device manufacturers and phone companies is strong here and they convelute the issue by writing and proposing legislation that would require the purchase of hands free technology by almost every mobile phone owner. The laws should not cater to the industry.

Common sense dictates that inexperienced drivers, younger people under 18 let's say, should not be multi-tasking while driving. The younger generation is far more immersed in the technological realm than others on the road and thus more likely to be more attentive to their devices than the road.

The law should be more targeted towards the behavior that creates a societal problem on the roadways. People are distracted when they look down to read, dial, or answer their phone. They are also distracted while talking on the phone. Their mind is elsewhere  and they are more likely to be a risk on the road. It is clear that the industry does not want legislation that takes the conversations out of cars but this is an obvious factor in the problem. The issue is not just about hardware and having less buttons to push, the distraction is obviously on the other end of the line.

Realistically, The government should start a safe driving initiative and reward manufacturers of hands-free devices with a stamp of approval for meeting a standard for reducing driving destractions.  It should set a safety standard for what is safe and the least destracting  for drivers. These standards could be enforced the same way as other auto standards.

GPS manufacturers who include bluetooth compatibility and phone connectivity (including the ability to read and send text messages) on their dash mounted units should get the government approval. Perhaps this will create a need for more innovation in that market and stimulate the economy a little. If users can keep their eyes closer to the road and glance down to read their instrumentation, they can surely communicate effectively, and dictate and have text messages dictated to them, while they drive.

Another possibility is to require connectivity as a standard feature in all new cars. Perhaps the caller ID console or connectivity unit can be added to the instrument panel or projected in a semi transparent way across a small section of the windshield. Regardless, the government should set a standard and then let the market and technology decide the delivery system. 

In my opinion, what California and the rest of the nation should do is enforce  the law of what it has already defined through legal precedent of the various destracting devices. California, like many other states is facing an economic crisis and is in need of revenue and it should take a stand against the apparent offenders who drive while distracted be it on the phone, texting, putting on lipstick, or staring at the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. All of these things have been labelled distractions, and therefore illegal, yet I've rarely seen or heard of enforcment of this legislation though it leads to many injury accidents and fatalities. But,  the technology will not be realistically kicked out of the car, but maybe we will see a price drop on the hands free devices we've been overpaying for courtesy of a government coupon.

Cell phones can be distracting but it seems very narrow to focus so specifically on cell phones. Why not pass laws against eating while driving or a car full of kids? What about a poorly designed navigation system or the next technology?

The federal government doesn't have the authority to pass a national law regarding driving with cell phones. For those that forgot (or skipped) their government class, all powers not explicitly given to the federal government are left to the states. Of course, congress does have the power of the purse and they could make it financially lucrative for the states to fall in line. Those who want to see laws against cell phone use while driving need to look to the states.

Some states, like Texas, make it illegal for drivers under 18 to use a cell phone but that's only a small portion of drivers. Locally, many Dallas suburbs have been passing their own laws regarding cell phone use in school zones. I just can't help but wonder what happened to personal responsibility. Are we really so out of control that we can't decide when it's safe to talk on the phone?

My wife and I had our first children last year (twins). As a stereotypical new parent, I worry about everything now. Driving down the road this week I saw a woman reading a book. Not a map, a novel. Every day I see people eating with sandwich in one hand and a drink in the other. The issue isn't talking on a cell phone while driving. It's that people forget about the outside world when they're in their cars.

I may regret this when I'm sitting in the class but continuing education for drivers would be much more effective way of encouraging better driving habits. People in every industry get go through training on new strategies, new surgical procedures, new emmissions testing but most people don't even read the manual that comes with their car until they get a flat tire. This power is well within the states reach and would only require an expansion of the current testing for new drivers. A re-education program for drivers could refocus their education and be a subtle reminder that driving is a priviledge. 

There was a time when I drove too fast. Well beyond the speed limit. That took a steady decline after college. Now I have children I worry about everything. If we could instill half that concern in other drivers, we'd all be a little safer. A law against using cell phones while driving is just too narrow.



Is using a cellphone dangerous while driving in traffic? From a european point of view, things are different. I live in the Netherlands. Using a cellphone without a handsfree set is illegal here. The fine is $215 (140 EUR). Studies show that making a phonecall is distractive while driving. Therefore the advice is not to call at all. But from experience we know that holding a cellphone makes driving even more difficult, as it prevents you from driving your car with both hands. With the immense popularity of manual transmission in cars in Europe it is actually hard to use a cellphone (I drive automatic, I hate stick shift). 

So we could probably all agree that it is better to use handsfree equipment while driving. Bluetooth headsets are very popular here (much cheaper than a fine) so the necessary technology is within reach. Personally I don't believe in in-dash gear. You would have to switch sim cards, or use double sim cards, have different numbers and if your car is in the shop you are back to where you were. I believe the current trend in wireless (BT) technology for personal devices is the way to go, as it liberates you from what vehicle you step into, and it is very usable when you are not even driving. For instance, I am making and receiving phone calls using a bluetooth headset from home, from the office and even when I am outside or shopping, simply because you still have your hands free to do work, carry things or whatever you are doing. 

I don't think any anti-cell phone law will be effective. We have laws against speeding and yet people continually break them all the time. People are used to having a cell phone on them at all times; hence, they feel they can use it whenever they want.

I've noticed that when I'm on the phone at home, I can really only focus on one thing. If I focus on the phone conversation, then I don't really notice what's going on around me. Conversely, if I try to do something else while on the phone (besides taking notes) I have difficulty paying attention to the conversation. The same thing happens if I'm a passenger in a vehicle; I'm oblivious to external items.

I imagine that most people are like this and therefore their driving will be affected. Not to mention that, when you're driving, the person you're talking to isn't able to see what you're doing and therefore can't stop talking at a critical time. A passenger is in the same vehicle and can stop talking when you need to concentrate.

People are also conditioned to answer the phone. My wife has a friend who will stop talking with her so the friend can answer her phone. Not only is it rude, but if the conditioned response occurs while driving, it suddenly becomes a dangerous situation.

Requiring hands-free devices doesn't really help; all it does is ensure the driver has both hands on the wheel. But if the driver is distracted, having both hands available often doesn't make a difference. I've seen people with and without earpieces drive around completely oblivious to the world around them; they switch lanes without looking in mirrors, cut people off, and otherwise drive like they are the only ones on the road. Granted, some people drive like that all the time but anecdotal evidence seems to show that cell phone drivers are worse and do it more often.

Additionally, having a cell phone in your hand isn't really different than driving while eating. Your concentration is focused between to things and one hand isn't available. Driving while adjusting the stereo can be bad too, especially if you are trying to find the one song out of the thousand on your iPod.

Vehicles that have more autonomic features, such as self-adjusting cruise control and braking, can make life a little safer. Though they can't compensate for poor driving and self-driving cars are still a ways off, they can help compensate for the reduced reaction times distracted drivers have.

All that being said, having drivers using a hands-free device is somewhat safer than having the phone in hand because they do have both hands available if necessary. The problem comes in enforcement. With so many people with phones in their vehicles, law enforcement will be overtaxed if they are required to stop drivers just for driving while talking. On the other hand, if anti-phoning laws are like many seat belt laws (where police officer has to stop the driver for an unrelated reason instead of just for not wearing a seat belt) then police will have to look for more reasons to stop the driver. Of course, with how distracted drivers drive, it probably won't be that difficult to find an "unrelated" charge.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what the laws are. People are people and will continue to do what is most convienient for them and what they have become used to. Just because something is illegal doesn't mean everyone will follow the law. As a matter fact, simply because something is illegal makes some people do it as an act of rebellion. A coworker has been tempted to start smoking again because of all the ridiculous laws being passed in regards to smoking in public. People like him will buck the system simply because of the belief that the law is infringing on some personal right and freedom. Passing anti-cell phone laws could actually backfire and create a "counter-culture" of willful lawbreakers.

There is no easy answer but knee-jerk reactions by law makers won't fix the problem. Additional studies by independent organizations should be conducted to see what alternative options might work better, e.g. allowing personal cell phone jammers. However, the problem isn't necessarily one with technology but with human personalities and making laws against being human don't work very well.

We need to teach drivers how to use mobile devices safely.

Safe drivers know that the best way to arrive alive is to pay attention to the road while filtering out distractions. Mobile devices provide a lot of functionality and can easily pull attention away from the road, but essentially they're just one of many potential distractions. Turning on the heat, adjusting the radio, or having a conversation with a passenger all require part of the driver's attention, and using a mobile device is no different. It's important to educate drivers on how and when it's appropriate to look away from the road, and to prioritize what's happening in front of the windshield as most important.

To be most effective that education belongs in driver training, and using a mobile device while on the road should be part of the live driving test. If a student driver swerves a lot, misses stops or doesn't notice pedestrians then "live mobile device" would appear as a restriction on the driver's license just like with a person who wears glasses now.

Later, drivers could retake the test and potentially remove the "live mobile device" restriction as they gain experience.

But outside of modernizing driver's training there are some easy ways to simplify using a mobile device, which makes them less distracting. Drivers handicap themselves by holding a cell phone to an ear while steering the car with their other hand. But that's an easy fix, right? Run out and buy a headset and the problem is solved.

Maybe, but headsets are a risk too because they impair the driver's ability to hear. It's hard to listen carefully with a headset blocking your ear canal. Florida realized that and requires that one "ear must be kept free to hear surrounding sound".

Many states like California, Illinois, Main and Nebraska restrict younger drivers from using cell phones; see the table below. 

States that restrict young drivers (still on learner's permit or under 18-21) from using mobile devices.

States that allow all drivers to use mobile devices.

Distri ct of Columbia
New Jersey
New Mexico, North Carolina
Rhode Island
West Virginia

Connecticut (hands-free required)
New Hampshire
New York
Washington (no text messaging allowed

Ironically, though young drivers have less experience than older drivers, typically they're more adept at operating mobile devices in the first place. Whether an inexperienced driver is slightly distracted by using a device or an experienced driver is significantly distracted by that same device, both situations result in a slower reaction to emergencies.

Factory installed speaker systems that connect to a cell phone via Bluetooth may provide the best option right now. Both of the driver's ears are kept clear and there isn't a need to hold the phone up with one hand and drive with the other.

Whether it's a factory installed system or single ear headset, hands-free devices enable greater dexterity for drivers, but mindshare is still the greatest casualty. A driver in a heated conversation, for example breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, isn't going to care as much about what's going on outside the vehicle.

Additionally, hands-free accessories don't address the problem of looking away from the road to see what's happening on the tiny mobile device screen. Smart phones make it possible to send e-mail, watch video and browse the web-a driver distracted by one of those activities would never notice the deer that just jumped in the road.

But that may be a temporary problem too. As mobile devices continue to shrink, their screens and keyboards are becoming the largest feature. New concept glasses that overlay screen content on top of the real world could enable a quick glance to one side while keeping the driver's focus on the road. Right now, using a mobile device requires a glance completely away from the road, down to a tiny screen, then back up to the open road.

Mobile device predictions chart


There's a dirty secret that no one wants to acknowledge. Cell phone conversations while driving are dangerous — no matter how you do them. The New England Journal of Medicine performed a remarkable study. They identified 699 people who'd been in car accidents, and then checked the time of their accidents against their cell phone records. "The risk of a collision when using a cell phone was four times higher," the study reports, and even hands-free units "offered no safety advantage over hand-held units."

Cell phones are a great technology — but they just don't mix with driving. Talking on a cell phone while driving is about as dangerous as driving drunk, the study's author concluded. "It's about keeping your mind on the road, not just keeping your hands on the steering wheel," he told Wired News. The only advantage? After you're in a car accident, the cell phone makes it easier to call for an ambulance.

"As humans, we're only good at doing a certain number of tasks at a time," another research scientist added. He performs studies at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, and notes that driving requires focused attention. And this idea is becoming more widely accepted. Six states, including California and New York, have already banned all handheld cell phone conversations while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But there's an inconvenient truth. There would probably be fewer accidents with fewer in-car phone systems.

NPR's popular "Car Talk" DJ's even launched a campaign called "Drive Now, Talk Later." ("Sick and tired of having your life endangered by drivers who are too self-important to put their phones down and pay attention to the road?" they ask on their web site. "So are we.") They've assembled a web page collecting studies about the dangers of talking while driving. Eight years after the New England Journal of Medicine study, the exact same results were being confirmed by further research by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They'd watched 100 drivers for a year, according to an article in a Detroit newspaper, which reported its ominous conclusions. "Using a cell phone behind the wheel is a key cause of traffic accidents, and...hand-free devices provide little safety benefit." In fact, "head sets or voice-activated dialing led to longer dialing times than for those using hand-held phones. The delays offset the potential benefit of keeping both hands on the wheel."

Some states even prohibit new drivers from carrying passengers in the car, citing studies which show they can be a dangerous distraction for inexperienced drivers. So it definitely makes sense to restrict phoning-while-driving among minors as well. But the research seems to suggest that that's a false distinction. People who are driving shouldn't be talking on their cellphone.

This becomes a question of political science — about whether the responsibility should lie with the government, or with the individual drivers. I'm surprised we had to pass legislation just to remind people that when they're driving, it's a bad time to start text messaging. But with 2 billion people on the planet, we'll eventually encounter ever possible behavior pattern. Douglas Adams once joked about drivers who speed up in order to locate better cell phone reception. Instead of technology serving its users, he said, "it's actually killing them off."

Yes we love our cars, and we love our cell phones.

But we don't have to use them at the same time.

Mobile phone use in autos is extremely dangerous, and more consistent national legislation is needed. 

For consistency along, mobile phone use is best regulated nationally rather than in the current haphazardous state-by-state way which is confusing to all and not effectively stemming the tide of mobile induced accidents.

Hands free mobile operation is not clearly a very safe option, but for practical reasons it is probably impossible to regulate this type of use, and it seems excessive to ban use of all devices (such as GPS), may of which provide safety and convenience factors that may improve the net driving experience.

Thus the ¨right answer¨ in this case appears to be to require that any mobile device use is hands free.

More difficult are issues relating to enforcement.   Many locations, for example, only cite for seatbelt violations in conjunction with other violations.   This is more a practical and privacy issue and therefore creates something of a slippery slope, so I´d be inclined to leave these decisions to local law enforcement along with the nuanced approaches to speeding and other such violations.