Like many of you reading this, I'm guilty of driving while talking on a cellphone or, even worse, using other mobile applications. But like 74% of people surveyed, many of whom drive while using cellphones, I also think it should be illegal.
Heck, let's face it. We all have experienced drivers who appear oblivious to what's going on around them, are in the wrong lane, run a stop sign or traffic light, rear-end the car in front of them, change lanes without looking, or inappropriately take the right of way with a cellphone plastered to their ear. Common sense would demand that cellphone use be prohibited while driving. Studies have demonstrated that driving while talking on a cellphone is equivalent or even much worse than driving drunk at a .08 blood alcohol level.
However, research demonstrates that talking to another passenger in the car is relatively safe because the passenger is another set of eyes and conversation reacts to traffic difficulties and events. Also, simply listening to the radio or similar activities do not substantially impair driving.
It's all about eyes off the road, cognitive distraction and the inability to process everything necessary on the road. There are other distractions that occur while behind the wheel, but cellphone use is the most common distraction and among the most dangerous.
Studies do not support hands-free phone use as less dangerous. Intuitively, one would think that two hands on the wheel and eyes on the road would be a much safer situation, but it's the cognitive distraction and “inattention blindness” that cause much of the increased risk of crashes.
The statistics vary among studies, but examine this sample from credible sources:
• 80% of motorists talk on cell phones while driving, and up to 19% admit to accessing the internet. A total of 30% of drivers send or receive texts while driving. The risk of a crash while texting is 23 times more likely, accounting for 390,000 injuries yearly.
• Cellphone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes yearly. Some 28% of car accidents are caused by drivers talking or texting on cellphones.
• Nearly 20% of fatal accidents are attributable to cell phone use. Fatal-crash risk is 66% higher when manipulating a cellphone.
• Motorists who use cellphones for any reason while driving have more than a five-fold increased chance of being involved in an accident. Simply talking on a cellphone increases crash risk four-fold.
• The clear majority of Americans believe that talking or texting are two of the most dangerous behaviors while driving.
Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., ban the use of handheld phones for all drivers, and 48 states and Washington, D.C., ban texting by all drivers. Indiana bans all cellphone use for drivers younger than 18 and bans texting for all drivers.
A complete cellphone ban while driving is not politically possible. It would infuriate voters and incense auto manufacturers. Although hands-free devices aren't safe, banning at least handheld phones is prudent and is associated with a 10% lower non-alcohol-related driver fatality rate
Drivers too often look but don't see while using cellphones, and their cars are turned into lethal weapons. Drivers should be fully engaged, attentive and focused.
Thanks to Gov. Eric Holcomb for leading the way in prohibiting handheld cellphone use while driving. It's long overdue.
Dr. Richard Feldman is former Indiana state health commissioner.