DEAR DATA DOG: Do cellular phones really cause auto accidents?

By Published on .

No. Cell phones don't crash cars. People with cell phones crash cars. Of course, the very people who get into accidents because they're talking on the cellular phone while driving probably get into the same sorts of accidents trying to deploy the cup holder.

Back in 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine ( published a study examining the possible link between cell phone calls and car crashes. After polling 699 drivers who had cell phones and were involved in motor vehicle accidents, the authors of the study concluded that the use of a cell phone while driving quadrupled the risk of a collision. They also noted that 39 percent of those drivers involved in collisions used the phone to call for help afterward. This obviously makes the cell phone a safer auto accessory than a dashboard television, which is only useful if you want to watch yourself on Shadow Traffic after your accident.

If you think that the public needs to be better educated about the dangers of using cell phones on the road, think again. A survey by the Insurance Research Council ( found that 84 percent of cellular phone users already believe that using a phone while driving increases the risk of an accident. Nevertheless, 61 percent claim to use their phones at least sometimes while driving, and 30 percent admit to using the phone frequently while careening down the highway. Fifty percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 use their phones frequently while driving-whereas one-third or fewer of those in all other age categories admit to such use. This is just another reason auto insurance for the young is so expensive. Kids, as we all know, think they're immortal; actuaries know better. What insurers don't yet know is whether the added risk of carrying a cell phone outweighs the added safety of its availability. (Just wait until the first commuter sues his company for having a work-related collision because his boss called him in his car. That should tip the scales.)

Quantifying the risk of using a cell phone while driving is the subject of an exhaustive (and exhausting) 1998 report from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (www., "An Investigation of the Safety Implications of Wireless Communications in Vehicles." With more than 85 percent of current users making calls while driving and an estimated 80 million cell phoners expected by 2000, the NHTSA is understandably anxious to know what kind of impact cell phones will have on highway safety. Drawing on industry surveys, state highway agencies, its own Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and National Automotive Sampling System (NASS), and anecdotal evidence better suited to "America's Stupidest Accidents" than a government report, the NHTSA study concludes that cell phone use while driving does increase the risk of a crash. (FARS collects data on fatal crashes, with an emphasis on the overall crash picture and traffic trends. NASS, composed of the Crashworthiness Data System and the General Estimates System, samples crash data from police reports, and concentrates on safety improvements in vehicle design.)

While stopping far short of the quadruple risk cited in The New England Journal of Medicine article (because the data to quantify the magnitude of the risk don't exist as yet), the NHTSA nevertheless made some interesting discoveries:

* It's not the actual handling of the phone that is dangerous, but the mere act of having a conversation that increases the risk of an accident. (How can conversation be dangerous, you say? Ask yourself why most Shadow Traffic reporters don't also fly the helicopter.)

* The overwhelming majority of cell phone users were in the striking vehicle (the automotive equivalent of a collect call).

* The most prevalent factor in crashes attributable to cell phone use is "driver inattention" (a condition that tends to evaporate just about the time of impact).

If this sort of information tweaks your desire for regulation, it may interest you to see the results of a 1994 Prevention magazine survey cited by the NHTSA. Of the top ten distracting activities respondents performed while driving, talking on a cell phone didn't even make the top five. Preceding cell phone use (18 percent) were the following: reading a map (33 percent), changing a tape or CD (64 percent), eating (66 percent), drinking beverages (71 percent), and the number one distracting activity, listening to music or news (95 percent). Coming close to cell phone use was hair combing (16 percent) and putting on make-up (14 percent). The bottom two activities, at 6 and 4 percent, were reading a magazine or newspaper, and shaving.

By the numbers, then, regulation should therefore focus not on cell phone use but on banning dashboard sound systems and criminalizing possession of food and drink paraphernalia such as straws, go-cups, and Slim Jim wrappers.

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