Curbing Cell Phone Use

“Shut up and drive” has become as popular an entry in the motorist lexicon as “get out of the way” and less printable admonitions, and states are moving to address problems associated with behind-the-wheel cell-phone use in the name of public safety.

Since 1999, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state has dealt with proposals related to wireless phones and driving. Twenty-two states, plus the District of Columbia, have enacted laws that restrict mobile communications _ most of them centered on requiring those using a cell phone while driving to use a hands-free device.

No state thus far has adopted a prohibition on cell-phone use, although five states contemplated the move this year. Several states have banned novice drivers _ those under 21 _ from talking on cell phones while driving.

The legislation is part of what Matt Sundeen, transportation program principal with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said is a concerted effort to make roads safer.

“Distracted driving remains a red-hot topic in state legislatures all across the country,” Sundeen said. “Cell phones, because of their high visibility, have been the focus of much state legislative activity.”

But states are expanding their scope, with some placing prohibitions on potential distractions such as DVD players, televisions, computers and even personal grooming.

The crackdown comes, ironically, at a time when road safety is improving. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Council earlier this month announced that the fatality rate on U.S. highways in 2004 was the lowest since recordkeeping began 30 years ago. The council said that 42,636 people died on the nation’s highways in 2004, down 248 from the previous year.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said highway safety has been steadily improving since 1966, when 50,894 people lost their lives on U.S. roads.

“Drivers are safer today on our nation’s highways than they have ever been, in part because of the safer cars, higher safety-belt use and stronger safety laws that the department has championed,” Mineta said. “But as long as the number of highway deaths remains as high as it is, we will keep advocating for the kind of vehicles, roads and driving habits that make people safer in their cars and trucks.”

States are looking to improve those numbers by limiting distractions. One researcher, John D. Lee, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Iowa, estimates that driver inattention could cause as many as 10,000 deaths and about $40 billion in damages in the United States annually.

Sundeen said that while opinions vary over which distractions cause the most crashes, the rapid growth of wireless technologies _ most notably the cell phone _ has instigated the most legislation. According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, more than 180 million people in the United States now use wireless services, a penetration rate of more than 60 percent, compared to fewer than 30 million 10 years ago. And many of them talk on the phone while driving.

“Anyone who has been in a car lately knows that it is common to see another driver maneuvering through traffic with one hand pressed against his or her ear,” Sundeen said. “Other potential distractions _ such as eating and drinking, personal grooming or using a radio or CD player _ often are not as easy to spot and can occur over a much shorter period of time, making them less likely to draw the ire of motorists, including state legislators and their constituents.”

Automobiles have proved to be a popular setting for cell-phone use, Sundeen said. In the face of growing congestion and longer commutes, motorists use phones to render time spent in the car more productive. Estimates of the number of wireless subscribers who use cell phones while driving vary from 50 percent to 70 percent, and the number appears to be growing.

Twelve states have conducted studies to determine cell-phone involvement in motor-vehicle crashes. Texas reported the most, using 2001 data, citing 1,032 accidents in which the cell phone was a factor out of 366,665 recorded incidents. State data indicate that mobile phones are a factor in less than 1 percent of the nation’s car crashes.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association maintains that the numbers prove that restrictions like those imposed in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District of Columbia _ which require the use of hands-free technology _ are unnecessary.

“Independent studies, various federal safety officials and numerous state representatives have all concurred that such legislation is ineffective, most likely has a negligible impact on safety and obscures the greater issue of driver distraction,” the association said in a press release. “In addition, law-enforcement officers in all 50 states already have the ability to cite drivers for reckless or inattentive driving.”

The association maintains that driver education is the best way to enhance driver safety.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)