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The Use of Cell Phones While Driving


Use of cell phones, also known as cellular or mobile phones, while driving though very common remains a highly controversial topic. Talking on a cell phone is generally considered to distract a driver and to increase the chance of accidents. Because of this, many governments have made it illegal to use cell phones while driving. According to a report by “The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society”, over 2,600 automobile deaths are caused by cell phone related distractions. Over 330,000 people in the United States sustain injuries from cell phone distracted drivers. Only some states have laws against using cell phones while driving. Other states have chosen only to limit the use of cell phones while driving, and have left it to local jurisdictions to determine their own laws related to driving and talking on a cell phone. This results in confusion for an increasingly transient United States culture.

A 1997 American study and a 2005 Australian study both estimated that the risk of collision when driving while using a cell phone was four times higher. According to a 2006 study conducted by The American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes, there is some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the crash. Cell phones are the biggest culprits of driver inattention. According to a study from Carnegie Mellon University, any type of cell phone use including dialing, holding, talking and even listening intently will interrupt the driver’s concentration sufficiently to impair driving.


Contrary to popular belief, studies suggest that driving while using a hands-free device is not safer than driving with a hand held cell phone. The process involving the “holding of a conversation” and not the use of hands, causes the increased risk. A study by the Transport Research Laboratory, with a driving simulator, concluded that hands-free phone conversations impair driving performance more so than other distractions such as conversations with a passenger.

The increased crash risk in both hands-free and hand held cell phone use is at odds with legislation in many locations that prohibits hand held cell phone use but allows hands-free. Since dialing buttons on a cell phone is more distracting than talking on a cell phone, hands-free devices that offer voice-dialing may reduce the increased risk to a limited extent.

Talking on Cell-Phone vis-a-vis Talking With Co-Passenger

Studies have produced mixed results on the dangers of talking on a cell phone versus those of talking with a passenger. The common belief is that passengers are able to better regulate conversation based on the perceived level of danger, therefore the risk is negligible. A study by a University of South Carolina found that planning to speak and speaking put far more demands on the brain’s resources than listening. On measuring the attention levels, it was seen that subjects were four times more distracted while preparing to speak or speaking than when they were listening.

However, a 2004 University of Utah simulation study that compared passenger and cell-phone conversations concluded that the driver performs better when conversing with a passenger because the traffic and driving task become part of the conversation. Drivers holding conversations on cell phones were four times more likely to miss the highway exit than those with passengers, and drivers conversing with passengers showed no statistically significant difference from lone drivers in the simulator. In contrast, the University of Illinois meta-analysis concluded that conversations with fellow passengers were just as costly to driving performance as cell phone ones. American Automobile Association (AAA) ranks passengers as the third most reported cause of distraction-related accidents at 11 percent, compared to 1.5 percent for cell phones. A simulation study funded by the American Transportation Research Board concluded that driving events that require urgent responses may be influenced by in-vehicle conversations and that there is little practical evidence that passengers adjusted their conversations to changes in the traffic. The study concluded that drivers’ training should address the hazards of both cell phone and passenger conversations.


There is limited scientific literature on the dangers of driving while sending a text message from a cell phone. A study by the Monash University Accident Research Centre pointed to strong evidence that retrieving and, in particular, sending text messaged has critically detrimental effect on a number of safety critical driving measures. A separate study at the University of Utah found a six fold increase in distraction-related accidents when texting.

The reason for the lack of scientific studies may be because of the general assumption that if talking on a cell phone increases risk, then texting also increases risk. According to a study, 89% of U.S. adults think that text messaging while driving is “distracting, dangerous and should be outlawed.” This has been supported by legislatures, and is evident from the fact that most countries and states that ban hand-held cell phones while driving also ban texting while driving.

The Harris Poll

The Harris Poll conducted online within the United States between May 11 and 18, 2009, among 2,681 adults (aged 18 and over) throw much light on the aspect of use of cell phone while driving. A study by the National Safety Council found that most drivers ignore the evidence about the risks of using cell phones and the advice of safety experts.

A 2003 study by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis estimated that six percent of crashes occurred due to the use of cell phone while driving. The study estimated this statistics to mean 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year putting the annual financial toll of cell phone-related crashes at $43 billion. Key findings in this Harris Poll include:

  • 72% of those who drive and own cell phones say they use them to talk while they are driving;
  • Most of these people (66%) say they usually use hand-held rather than hands-free phones to talk;
  • Even in states that have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, half (49%) of cell phone users use hand-held, rather than hands-free, phones;
  • Only two% of those who use cell phones while driving believe this is not dangerous at all. Most believe it is very dangerous (26%), dangerous (24%) or somewhat dangerous (33%);
  • 71% of those who use cell phones while driving believes that hands-free cell phones are safer than hand-held phones (even though some research suggest otherwise);
  • Younger drivers are more likely than older drivers to talk on the phone while driving. Most (58%) “Matures” (people currently aged 64 or over) who drive and own cell phones say they do not use their cell phones while driving; and,
  • A quarter of drivers with cell phones report using them to send or receive text messages while driving, although a large majority (74%) does not.

These findings point to several important conclusions:

  1. Cell phone use by drivers is very widespread.
  2. Large numbers of people do not obey state laws that forbid the use of hand-held phones.
  3. Most people believe that hands-free cell phone use is safer than using hand-held phones.
  4. Most drivers send and receive text messages while driving. 1

These results suggest that use of cell phone use for conversation as well as for texting is very common in the United States.

Restrictions on Use of Cell Phones While Driving–A Global Overview

Internationally, forty six countries have banned cell phone use while driving. Neither Canada (except for Newfoundland and Quebec) nor the United States are among the countries restricting use. In the United States, some of the states have strict cell phone regulations for novice drivers prohibiting them from talking on a cell phone while driving. Novice drivers are those with learner’s permit and restricted driving privileges. Some of the states ban texting while driving while others do not allow certain occupational drivers like drivers of school bus to use the cell phone while driving. Depending on the jurisdiction, a person may be ticketed for using the cell phone even if they have not committed any other traffic offence. Use of cell phone while driving may impact the amount of damages a person is eligible to receive in a lawsuit. A person may receive less in damages if he was talking on a cell phone, even if he did not cause the accident. This is particularly true in states with comparative fault liability.

State Laws Relating To Use Of Cell Phones While Driving

A jurisdiction-wide ban on driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone is in place in six states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, and Washington) and the District of Columbia. Utah has named the offense careless driving. Under the Utah law, no one commits an offense when speaking on a cell phone unless they are also committing some other moving violation other than speeding.

In six states the local authority is empowered to ban the use of cell phone while driving. These sates are Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Localities in other states may not need specific statutory authority to ban cell phones. Localities that have enacted restrictions on cell phone use include: Chicago, Illionis; Brookline, Massachusetts, Detroit, Michigan; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Brooklyn, North Olmstead, and Walton Hills, Ohio; Conshohocken, Lebanon, and West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania; Waupaca County, Wisconsin; and Oahu, Hawaii.

Localities are prohibited from banning cell phone use in eight states (Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah).

The use of all cell phones while driving a school bus is prohibited in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The use of all cell phones by novice drivers is restricted in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 14 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in the sates of Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia) and school bus drivers are banned from text messaging in Texas.

The table below shows the laws of various states restricting the use of cell phone for conversation and text messaging, and whether they are enforced as primary or secondary laws. Under secondary laws, an officer must have some other reason to stop a vehicle before citing a driver for using a cell phone. Laws without this restriction are called primary. California and Utah have unusual provisions noted below.

Laws Restricting Use Of Cell Phone2
StateBan on HandHeld use of Cell PhoneBan on use of Cell Phone by Young DriversBan on use of Cell Phone by Bus DriversBan on TextingNature of Enforcement
Alabamanononononot applicable
Alaskanononoall driversprimary
Arizonanonoschool bus driversnoprimary
Arkansasdrivers ages 18 through 20 (effective 10/01/09)drivers younger than 18 (effective 10/01/09)school bus driversall drivers (effective 10/01/09)primary: texting by all drivers and cell phone use by school bus drivers; secondary: cell phone use by young drivers (effective 10/01/09)
Californiaall driversdrivers younger than 18school and transit bus driversall driversprimary3
Coloradonodrivers younger than 18 (effective 12/01/09)noall drivers (effective 12/01/09)primary (effective 12/01/09)
Connecticutall driversdrivers younger than 18school bus driversall driversprimary
Delawarenolearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersschool bus driverslearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersprimary
District of Columbiaall driverslearner’s permit holdersschool bus driversall driversprimary
Floridanononononot applicable
Georgianonoschool bus driversnoprimary
Hawaiinononononot applicable
Idahonononononot applicable
Illinoislocal optiondrivers younger than 19 and learner’s permit holders younger than 19school bus driversnoprimary
Indiananodrivers younger than 18nodrivers younger than 18primary
Iowanononononot applicable
Kansasnolearner’s permit and intermediate license holders (effective 01/01/10)nolearner’s permit and intermediate license holders (effective 01/01/10)primary (effective 01/01/10)
Kentuckynonoschool bus driversnoprimary
Louisianawith respect to novice drivers, see footnote4 with respect to novice drivers, see footnote4 school bus driversall driverssecondary; primary for school bus drivers
Mainenolearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersnolearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersprimary
Marylandnolearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersnoall drivers (effective 10/01/09)secondary; primary for texting
Massachusettslocal optionnoschool bus driversnoprimary
Michiganlocal optionnonononot applicable
Minnesotanolearner’s permit holders and provisional license holders during the first 12 months after licensingschool bus driversall driversprimary
Mississippinononolearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersprimary
Missourinononononot applicable
Montananononononot applicable
Nebraskanolearner’s permit and intermediate license holders younger than 18nolearner’s permit and intermediate license holders younger than 18secondary
Nevadanononononot applicable
New Hampshirenononononot applicable
New Jerseyall driverslearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersschool bus driversall driversprimary
New Mexicolocal optionnonononot applicable
New Yorkall driversnononoprimary
North Carolinanodrivers younger than 18school bus driversall drivers (effective 12/01/09)primary
North Dakotanononononot applicable
Ohiolocal optionnonononot applicable
Oklahomanononononot applicable
Oregonnodrivers younger than 18 who hold either a learner’s permit or an intermediate licensenodrivers younger than 18 who hold either a learner’s permit or an intermediate licensesecondary
Pennsylvanialocal optionnonononot applicable
Rhode Islandnodrivers younger than 18school bus driversnoprimary
South Carolinanononononot applicable
South Dakotanononononot applicable
Tennesseenolearner’s permit and intermediate license holdersschool bus driversall driversprimary
Texasdrivers in school crossing zones (effective 09/01/09)intermediate license holders for first six monthsbus drivers when a passenger 17 and younger is presentbus drivers when a passenger 17 and younger is present; intermediate license holders for first six months; (effective 09/01/05) drivers in school crossing zones (effective 09/01/09)primary
Utahall driversnonoall driversprimary for texting; secondary for talking on a handheld cell Phone5
Vermontnononononot applicable
Virginianodrivers younger than 18school bus driversall driverssecondary; primary for school bus drivers
Washingtonall driversnonoall driverssecondary
West Virginianodrivers younger than 18 who hold either a learner’s permit or an intermediate licensenodrivers younger than 18 who hold either a learner’s permit or an intermediate licenseprimary (effective 07/10/09)
Wisconsinnononononot applicable
Wyomingnononononot applicable

Most drivers who own cell phones use them while driving even though almost all of them believe it is dangerous to do so. A quarter of drivers with cell phones sends or receives text messages while driving. The magnitude of the problem can be understood from the fact that most drivers with cell phones use hand-held rather than hands-free phones although they believe that hands-free phones are safer. Even in states where it is illegal for drivers to use hand-held phones, half of cell phone users do so.

The Pros and Cons of Using Cell Phone While Driving

While people have varying opinions about legislations restricting the use of cell phones by drivers, distraction of the person driving the vehicle appears to be the central issue. Irrespective of their stand on the issue, advocates and opponents agree that use of a cell phone has some effect in distracting the driver. The argument arises only over how much of a distraction it is.

Those favoring restrictive legislation argue that a driver’s cell phone use significantly reduces the attention while driving. In support, advocates cite a 1997 study by University of Toronto researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finding that drivers using cell phones quadrupled their risk of collision – an increase equivalent to the collision risk of legally-defined intoxicated drivers.

Opponents of the restrictive legislation, however, assert that cell phone use is no more distracting than listening to the radio, eating, or using the vanity mirror while driving. That opposing restrictive legislation point out that drivers’ access to cell phones has helped people and saved lives. In case of accidents, it is true that the ability to immediately summon assistance does increase the chance of survival – particularly since in such cases seconds count. The hour following a crash is often critical, and victims’ chances of survival improve drastically if they receive medical attention within that time. In situation like this, there seems to be little doubt that cell phones have a valuable function, and even New York’s cell phone law recognizes an exemption to allow for emergency contact. For accidents occurring in rural or less populated areas, a cell phone or other emergency technology may mean the difference between life and death.


Cell phone use and texting are the most common forms of distraction for drivers. However, lack of data makes it difficult to make scientific determinations as to the exact level of distraction created by cell phones. Therefore there needs to be more research on distracted drivers, what causes the distraction and how to reduce or eliminate distractions for drivers. Today the number of states requiring the reporting of cell phone related crash information has risen dramatically, and this will produce more statistically significant data.

Cell phones are not the only technologies distracting drivers. New technology appears virtually every day and vehicle drivers now have access to television, computers, faxes, and the internet while driving. The incorporation of these electronic devices into vehicles is a cause of great concern for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Familiarizing yourself with the features of your cell phone including speed dial and redial, positioning your cell phone within easy reach so that you can grab your phone quickly without taking your eyes off the road, suspending conversations during tough driving conditions, assessing the traffic before attending or making calls, and not engaging in stressful or emotional conversations while driving are recommended for safe driving.

1 http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2009/jun/08/harris-poll-results-most-drivers-who-own-cell-phon/
2 American Automobile Association (AAA), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and State Highway Safety Offices.
3 An officer in California can stop a person, regardless of age, holding a cell phone and talking or texting on it, but they may not use checkpoints to enforce the all cell ban for drivers younger than 18.
4 During the 2008 legislative session, Louisiana passed three different cell phone laws addressing teen drivers. The governor signed all three. As of September 12, 2008, it is unclear whether both hand-held and hands-free phone use is prohibited, or whether only hand-held phone use is banned. All three laws prohibit text messaging. A fourth cell phone law prohibits cell phone use by school bus drivers.
5 Utah’s law defines careless driving as committing a moving violation (other than speeding) while distracted by use of a hand-held cell phone or other activities not related to driving.

Inside The Use of Cell Phones While Driving