Talking on a cellular telephone while driving increases your risk of having a crash, although better accident reporting is needed before officials can say by how much, a major new federal report says.
As the phones become more common and top 100 million by the year 2000, the devices are expected to contribute to even more crashes, said the report released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Unlike an earlier Canadian study, the NHTSA report didn’t try to quantify the risk because, it said, most police agencies nation-wide do not routinely note whether drivers involved in crashes were on the phone. Only Oklahoma and Minnesota include a separate space on police accident reports for officers to note cellular phone usage.
“It makes sense there would be a relationship between cellular phones and crashes, but the big question is, ‘How big a problem is it?”’ said Elisa Braver, senior research analyst at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The Canadian study last year attempted to quantify the problem by comparing phone records with accident reports. Researchers found that talking on a phone while driving quadruples the risk of an accident.
The new NHTSA study mentioned a pilot program in the Baltimore-Washington and northern Virginia areas in which police agencies were asked to identify phonerelated crashes. Many motorists have complained about erratic or reckless driving by cellular phone users, and the police reports of cell phone accidents bolstered those observations:
A woman driving a minivan near her home was startled by the ringing of her cellular phone. When she reached for the phone, she ran off the road and sideswiped a tree. Her child, seated in the front seat, received fatal head injuries.
A repairman in a 1989 Plymouth van was talking on his cell phone and taking notes when he ran a red light and collided with another vehicle. A representative of the service company said its employees often take notes and use phones while driving.
A 50-year-old woman driving a minivan took her eyes off the road to pick up her phone and rear-ended a school bus stopped at a railroad crossing. The air bags in her minivan deployed, and a 6-year-old child in the front seat was critically injured.
A pick-up truck drifted out of its lane while its driver was on a cell phone and forced another vehicle off the road. The truck then struck the other vehicle, which hit a third car.
The truck driver denied using the cell phone, although witnesses said otherwise.
The reluctance of drivers to admit to phone usage after a crash further frustrates efforts to obtain data on the problem, the report noted.
“That kind of information is not usually documented anywhere,” said Susan McKenna, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Insurers.