Thursday, April 15, 2004

Neal's Public Policy Corner: Cell Phones and Automobiles

Walking the dog tonight I saw a pick-up truck rear-end a station wagon at low speed. There were no injuries, it appeared. I couldn't help but notice that the driver was talking on his cell phone.

I think that using the cell phone while driving is a coping mechanism for many people in LA. When you spend 3 or 4 hours commuting every day, undoubtedly at some point will need to talk on your cell phone.

A student I studied with at UCLA lived with his parents a couple of hours away from campus. He told me that the only time he could talk to his friends was when he was on the freeway. (I assumed for reasons of privacy and just as a matter of making time.)

So I wonder if something should be done to regulate cell phone use by drivers here in California.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has an interesting piece here, if a bit dated. I think it takes pains to present both sides of the story.

"California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas require police to include information about cellular telephones in accident reports." Id.

Selected quote:

Telecommunications companies say that new technology in cars not only will improve commerce but highway safety as well. Already, an estimated 98,000 emergency calls are placed by cell phone users each day, and billions of dollars of business may be transacted by drivers each year. Studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have concluded that cellular phones often reduce emergency response times and actually save lives. New technology also may make it easier for people to drive more safely on the road.

State policymakers, however, must weigh the promises of wireless technology in cars against the growing evidence of the potential dangers. The 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the distraction caused by phone use in motor vehicles quadrupled the risk of a collision during the brief period of a call, a rate equivalent to the impairment caused by legal intoxication. Other studies - conducted in the United States as well as in Great Britain and Japan - have similarly concluded that speaking on mobile phones, even if they are hands-free, can make drivers a risk on the road. The basic conclusion of these studies is that the distraction of the call, not the actual act of dialing, impairs a driver's ability to safely operate the vehicle. (emphasis mine)

I will admit that I do sometimes answer my cell phone while driving. Ok, so not even Safety Neal is 100% safe. Actually, I'm not even sure there is such a thing as safety. As soon as you start to feel safe, you let your guard down. Thus, safety seems like a comforting illusion.

But what should public policy be on cell phone use in cars? My father has suggested to me a "bright line rule" that the government should restrict cell phone use to emergency use only.

Perhaps that is too draconian. I think exceptions could be made for other circumstances. But which ones?

I found this 1997 NHTSA report that addresses these issues as well.

Selected quote:

Americans spend substantial amounts of time commuting and members of the public place high importance on keeping up with their tasks and activities. It is therefore not surprising that individuals will attempt to optimize their time in the automobile by doing other things concurrently. It may be unrealistic and perhaps ill-advised to conclude that drivers should have no advanced in-vehicle information systems at their disposal because they might be a source of distraction. A number of intelligent transportation system (ITS) initiatives intended to improve the highway safety and efficiency, are, in fact, focusing on increasing such information availability. These initiatives, however, have heightened NHTSA concern over possible synergistic effects of the various technologies that might increase driver workload beyond acceptable levels.

I was also over at and they have some interesting suggestions for adding teeth to laws banning cell phone usage. This post is already getting kind of long, so I'll leave that one as a link for you. See Volume 12 if you want some more recent analysis.

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