Crashes caused by inattentive drivers are nothing new. Cell phones are the latest distraction.
Falling asleep at the wheel may be the ultimate failure to pay attention, but drivers who are adjusting the radio, trying to discipline small children, or holding cell phones to their ears also contribute to the accident rate. And inattentive driving is a major cause of collisions: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that it's involved in at least a quarter of all crashes.
Cell phones as a problem
The latest, most visible, and most controversial source of driver in-attention is the handheld cell phone. For many motorists, to see another driver talking on the phone is to see red. Cell phones have been available for 20 years and are now everywhere—the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association says there are 137 million subscribers in the United States. Cell phone use by drivers has become very common: According to NHTSA, at any given moment of the day, 500,000 drivers of passenger vehicles are talking on handheld cell phones.
This adds up to a lot of miles driven by people who are not necessarily giving their full attention to driving. And handheld phones aren't the only culprit: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has found that use of hands-free phones also contributes to inattention.
Legislation to address the perceived hazard of cell phone use behind the wheel has been passed in many places. Australia, Austria, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Switzerland have all restricted cell phone use by drivers.
In the United States, bills to restrict cell phone use in cars have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. Among the states, only New York has passed a law banning the use of handheld cell phones for drivers, although other states are considering similar laws. In California, Nevada, and Utah, bills to ban cell phone use while driving have failed.
Cell phones as a benefit
Even though the improper use of cell phones is a hazard, the news about them isn't all negative. For example, properly used, phones in cars can mean security when you're on the road. If you need directions, want to report a dangerous condition, or need Emergency Road Service (ERS), a cell phone can be your best friend. Recognizing this, AAA has arranged with Verizon to make cell phones with one-touch access to ERS available to members.
Cell phone safety
Merry Banks, senior manager of CSAA's Community and Safety Services, notes, "Phone calls made from the driver's seat contribute to collisions. It's easy to be distracted for a few seconds by dialing or by a heated conversation. And when you're going 60 miles per hour, in only three seconds you travel nearly the length of a football field."
Anne Da Vigo, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, summarizes the basic rule of cell phone use for drivers in this way: "The primary job of a driver is safety. If you must make an extended phone call, pull off the road and park in a safe place."
AAA also recommends you not use your cell phone while driving. However, if you must call when behind the wheel, AAA suggests:
This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.