You've dialed the wrong number if you think that it's safe to drive while chatting on your cell. A newly released study of Australian motorists found that cell phone users were four times as likely to be involved in a serious crash.
First study of its kind
The study, which ran in the British Medical Journal, is the first of its type to use actual crash data and cell phone records to correlate serious vehicular accident injuries with talking on the telephone. Further, the results show that the same risks are posed whether holding a phone to your ear or talking through a hands-free devise such as a speakerphone.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a similar study in the U.S. because cell phone records aren't considered public information. The new study looked at cell phone records of some 500 drivers who had accidents in Perth, where drivers cannot use hand-held phones. Researchers estimated the time of the crash and examined whether the motorist used a cell phone in the minutes leading up to the accident. They then looked at similar time intervals in the days before the crash to determine the added risk of using the cell phone.
Talking, not holding, is more distracting
The study was conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit research organization in Virginia. IIHS dispatched researchers to three Perth hospitals for interviews of crash victims in years 2002 to 2004. Among other things, accident victims were asked whether they had hands-free phone devices in the vehicle and how frequently that equipment was used. The IIHS research in Australia found that the most distracting cell phone activity is the act of conversing on the phone, not the holding of equipment.
Consistency across groups of drivers
"The main finding of a fourfold increase in injury crash risk was consistent across groups of drivers," says Anne McCartt, IIHS vice president for research and an author of the study. "Male and female drivers experienced about the same increase in risk from using a phone. So did drivers older and younger than 30 and drivers using hand-held and hands-free phones."
McCartt's IIHS colleague Russ Rader contends, "it doesn't matter whether you're using a hand-held phone or hands-free equipment, the danger's ever present. This study clearly shows that drivers should not be using cell phones when driving. The research shows that the risk is significant. If you're on a cell phone when driving, you're putting yourself and your passengers at risk, and you're endangering the lives of other motorists. "
Need to use your cell when driving?
According to Mr. Rader, if you need to use your phone when driving, "Pull off to the side of the road and make your call or wait until you get to your destination." Rader warns motorists to avoid multi-tasking when behind the wheel. "Driving safely requires total concentration. Driving is a complex task. Keeping track of what's going on around you is difficult enough without distractions."
Undoubtedly, numerous drivers use cell phones, a fact of driving life that isn't lost on Rader. "The idea of not using your cell phone may be hard for some people to swallow, because cell phone use is ubiquitous," he added. "However, the research shows that cell phone use is a hazard to highway safety. Motorists have to ask themselves, is making this phone call worth the risk?"
Inattentive driving also is a subject of concern to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in Washington, D.C. Says NHTSA spokesman Eric Bolton: "For years, we've been very concerned about inattentive driving. Cell phone use is one of many such distractions that may be a factor involved in fatal vehicular crashes." Bolton cited other major distractions, namely drivers fiddling with CDs, switching channels on the car radio, talking to passengers, eating food or drinking coffee, and looking back at children in the backseat.
"The primary job of any driver is to safely operate their vehicle without being inattentive, distracted or drowsy -- that's job one," asserted Bolton. In terms of cell phone use, Bolton continued, "we see the benefits of having the device available in an emergency, but it shouldn't be used indiscriminately. It doesn't matter whether it's hands-held or hands free, it's still a distraction that must be used responsibly by drivers."
The American Insurance Association identifies a message from the IIHS study. AIA's Nicole Mahrt pointed out that "drivers need to concentrate on the task at hand. They shouldn't be engaged in other activities such as holding the dog, talking on the cell phone, reading a newspaper or any other activity that distracts a motorist from his or her primary objective of getting to the destination safely. Such distractions tend to slow down driver reaction time to roadway hazards that can come up quickly and unexpectedly. People need to be responsible behind the wheel."
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