New study finds hands-free cellphones no better

I’m interrupting the series on the motorcycle safety puzzle with breaking news–though, if you think about what you’re about to read, it really does have something to do with rider safety:

Ten days ago, a study was released that found cell phones were responsible for 28% of crashes. Now, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has released “definitive proof” that hands-free cellphones are no safer than holding a cell phone to the ear while driving. The study was done by a IIHS affiliate, the Highway Loss Data Institute found that hand-held cellphone use decreased by 41-76%, yet, despite the decrease,  there was no significant difference between crash rates before and after bans.

“Insurance collision loss experience does not indicate a decrease in crash risk when hand-held laws are enacted,” said the study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “There is no evidence that bans on hand-held use by drivers has affected . . . collision claims.”

We can’t even see a blip in the data for crashes,” said Mr. Lund. Furthermore, there was no indication that increased cellphone use was resulting in more crashes nationwide, despite what studies and common sense would indicate. Lund is president of both the IIHS and the Highway Data Loss Institute.

While the reasons aren’t known, Lund said, “We still don’t think we understand this fully.” But one possibility is that while cellphones are a distraction, maybe they are not “all that much worse a distraction than many of the other things that we do.”

He went on to say that another reason could be that those who used hand-held cell phones simply switched to hands-free which carry no less risk. “Our real problem is to do something about the bigger problem of distracted driving, whether that’s cellphones, whether that’s the baby crying in the back seat, whether it’s the CD you dropped on the floor, whatever it is.”

The Washington Post article added, “The District has made an effort to enforce the hand-held ban, issuing 7,519 warnings and 12,936 tickets in 2008. The institute study found that in the first two years of the ban, collision claims declined by about 5 percent. Baltimore, Virginia and Maryland, which do not have hand-held bans, experienced similar declines during the same period.”

Otoh, “New York, which banned hand-helds while driving in 2001, was compared with three states that allow them — Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania — and there was no significant difference in the number of accidents recorded. Crash patterns after California imposed a ban in 2008 mirrored those in three neighboring states — Arizona, Nevada and Oregon — that allow hand-held use.”

Further study is needed, they say. So studies find hand-held cell phone users are four times more likely to have a crash, that texting while driving is like driving drunk and that hands-free is no less risky than hand-held.

Although it appears no study has been done, on-board GPS units may be as distracting as cellphones. In fact, any electronic device that requires visual attention to be directed away from the driving task (particularly manually inputting directions into a GPS unit or trying to read the screen) or intense mental concentration may be as distracting as cell phones.

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15 Comments on “New study finds hands-free cellphones no better”

  1. Jeff Brenton Says:

    “Our real problem is to do something about the bigger problem of distracted driving, whether that’s cellphones, whether that’s the baby crying in the back seat, whether it’s the CD you dropped on the floor, whatever it is.”

    Exactly. Cell phones are just the latest excuse. Other studies have blamed the introduction of radio to cars 50 years ago, tape players 35 years ago, CD players 20 years ago, … you get the picture. Even eating while driving is on the list.

    Drivers are so protected in their cars these days that it is so easy to let yourself be distracted. If we thought it was dangerous, maybe we’d concentrate on it more. But, our government has made it safe.

    Those of us who have always considered driving to be a dangerous pastime seem to treat it with a lot more respect, and things that would make most people say, “You’ll never believe what (almost) happened to me on the way here!” are more along the lines of, “You should have seen what I saw on the way here!” Proper vigilance will let you be a witness instead of a participant.

    Maybe it’s time to install the steel spike in the steering wheel that has been repeatedly mentioned as the way to make drivers pay attention?

  2. vstromer Says:

    One thing missing from the hand-held cell phone argument is the loss of visual field while holding a cell phone to one’s ear. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I can’t count the number of times someone has cut into my lane while I’m riding on the interstate, simply because they can’t see me with the cell phone, their hand, and their arm, blocking their view.

    Obvious solution – don’t ride next to these idiots. Of course, I try not to ride next to them and try not to ride in their blind spot.

    I’m a distance runner too, and have experienced the same thing. The driver with the cell phone held to their ear doesn’t see me in the crosswalk.

    We don’t allow drivers to tape a piece of plywood over their driver’s window. Why? It would block their view. It is no different than holding a cell phone to your ear.

  3. wmoon Says:

    Vstromer, I’m not sure that the problem is sight obstruction. Studies have shown that the field of vision narrows as drivers concentrate on a phone conversation (more so than with a passenger). Drivers’ vision literally becomes tunnel–seeing only straight ahead–and no lower than mid-screen straight ahead. Iow, even if you were ahead of them to the right or left–in what you’d think was clear view–you’re invisible.

  4. Dave B Says:

    Another point – when you’re talking on the phone, you’re visualizing the person you’re talking to in your mind or you’re visualizing what you’re talking about (something that happened or you want to happen). Now you have mental images in your head in addition to the visual images you perceive on the road. It’s like watching a split TV screen. Which one do you concentrate on? The one you’re emotional about or the one that becomes a hazard?

    Unfortunately, this problem will never go away. Some say they can multi-task while driving. Some will argue listening to the radio is a distraction.

    Big bucks involved in cell phones. You can pass all the legislation you want but how much can you enforce it? NY just past a law that makes texting while driving illegal BUT you can only get a summons for it if the police officer sees you doing something else illegal. Why bother?

    And you see police officers on the cell phone all the time while driving(so others don’t listen in to their conversations).

    And car manufacturers are starting to build the cell phone into the dashboard.

    Smoke and mirror politics. The dollar rules.

    And how many drunk drivers get multiple second chances?

    It’s just getting more and more dangerous on the road.

    “Beam me up Scotty. There’s no intelligent life here”.

  5. Dave Says:

    Now begs the question how many people continued to use there phones even with the ban in place?

  6. wmoon Says:

    Well, since cell phone use dropped by–what was it–41-76% my guess is that 59-24% did. And my guess is those folks just switched to hands-free and kept on chattering.

  7. wmoon Says:

    Dave, iirc, you can only get a ticket for seat belt nonuse if the officer stopped you for another reason…

    I think you’re spot on about money talking (Can you hear me now?)–but I think it’s also “driven” by cagers who are convinced that they aren’t distracted, they’re good drivers, they won’t get in a crash. Sort of like motorcyclists and the risks they take on.

    And if Scotty does beam you up–can you have him pick me up too?

  8. Dave B Says:

    Not sure about other states but in NY you can be ticketed solely for not wearing a seat belt. We have periodic roadside seat belt checkpoints (funded by the govenment) and issue a bunch of tickets just for that. Interesting. A ticket can be issued solely for someting that will protect you in a crash but a ticket can’t be issued solely for something that’s been shown to cause a crash. Where’s the logic?

    I read a survey recently that asked drivers if they thought driving while on a cell phone (hand held or hands free) was very dangerous. About 70% said yes. And more than 1/2 of these people also admitted to driving and using a cell phone. So they agree it’s very dangerous yet they do it. Mind boggling.

    And new teenage drivers will continue the trend because they see their parents doing it and they (the teenagers) spend most of their lives using the cell phone.

    “Scotty, two to beam up”.

  9. wmoon Says:

    Oh, man, you just depressed the heck out of me…

  10. CaptCrash Says:

    What? No silver bullets? Here’s a real question: in all this calculationing of how deadly cell phones are–how come no one factors in vehicle occupancy? For example:

    1 Teen = pretty safe
    2 Teens = Not so safe
    3 Teens = FATAL ACCIDENT.


    •Statistics show that 16 and 17-year-old driver death rates increase with each additional passenger (IIHS).

    I’d bank other teens are a distraction for teen drivers…they do tend to talk you know…

    Again, to the point: Are the accident rates of single users operating a cell phone COMPARABLE with users carrying multiple occupants?

    (Postulating that the problem isn’t the phone; it’s the conversation.)

  11. DataDan Says:

    Perhaps the unexpected result is due to a wild overestimate of the problem caused by cellphones. If they aren’t really causing the number of crashes blamed on them, then laws limiting their use will have no effect.

    Somehow the estimate of “four times as likely to crash” while using a cellphone cited by the IIHS has become accepted, but I haven’t found a source for it. The recently released National Safety Council study used it too.

    The only plausible estimate for cellphone risk comes from the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, which found a 29% increase in crash risk while talking and 3-times increase while dialing. Overall, they estimate that 7% of all crashes are caused by cellphone use.

    It should also be noted that as cellphones became ubiquitous over the past 10-15 years, the overall highway crash rate has steadily declined. Involvement of all types of vehicles, all crash severities (fatal, non-fatal, property damage only), and deaths and injuries of pedestrians and bicyclists continue to fall. Only the motorcycle fatality rate has increased.

  12. wmoon Says:

    Capt Crash, I’d say that the problem isn’t the phone or the conversation but the concentration the conversation (whether on the phone or in person) requires. There’s many many studies on cell phone usage and how it affects driving. Many found that the problem isn’t hands-free or handheld-it’s the cognitive demand. Drivers that were asked to do simple mental tasks talking on the phone weren’t as affected in the driving task–but to the degree the mental tasks required more concentration and attention, there was a corresponding drop in driving task ability. It’s simply Kieth Code’s buck of attention thing.

    It just takes far less, for some reason, for cellphone conversations to be that attention-consuming. My guess is that drivers who were raised in car-culture countries have been socialized since birth–they’ve learned that passengers also pay attention and picking up on what’s going on and shutting up or warning the driver-that there’s a natural unobserved cooperation between driver and occupants by the time they’re adults. Though it certainly doesn’t happen all the time and sometimes fighting in the car does lead to crashes.

  13. wmoon Says:

    DataDan, I think that’s simplistic to link the ubiquity of cellphone use with a decrease in crashes.

  14. DataDan Says:

    I am absolutely not linking cellphones to the decrease in crashes. Lots of factors including an aging population (older is safer, at least up to a point), more difficult licensing requirements for the youngest drivers that tend to keep them off the road, migration from dense city environments to more car-friendly suburbs, better streets, better cars, etc., etc. have contributed.

    But the fact that the long-term downward trend in crashes persists in spite of cellphones suggests that their effect is relatively small.

  15. wmoon Says:

    Ok, I hear what you’re saying–but then you did it again at the end of the comment–linked them. In lieu of any proof, that it’s Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy: Because cellphones have been used for so long and crashes went down then their effect was relatively small. In this case, it appears you’re claiming a lack of causal relationship–that if cellphones were significant, then crash rates wouldn’t go down. While that sounds appealing, it’s basically trying to prove a negative.

    And, btw, it’s true that overall crashes decreased 10.2 percent since 1990. While passenger car crashes decreased 21.9 percent light truck vehicles (vans, pickups and suvs) increased 55.87 percent.

    Given that pickup/suv owners in particular tend to be former passenger car owners and the sales of passenger cars went down while LTV sales went up, it could be that there was a trade-off: some-most-all of the passenger car crash decrease was simply transferred to LTVs. And, indeed, PCs as a percentage of all crashes decreased by 13% LTVs increased by 23%. I use this apparent digression to point out how a significant effect can be hidden by a larger number…

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