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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Cell phones mix poorly with driving

When I wrote of driver distraction nearly a decade ago, things were different.  The use of cell phones was well underway, but the obsession by drivers was yet undeveloped.  It’s hard to believe, but back then texting had not even become popular!

Now, although hand-held phone use is forbidden and hands-free should be, talking on the phone while driving is rampant.  And careless drivers now send texts while driving, even though that process steals undue periods of attention away from the driving effort.

Ten years ago, cell phones hadn’t appeared on any driver distraction list that I saw.  But about eight years ago, the use of cell phones while driving (and everywhere else) caught on in a big way.  In a 2005 column, I listed cell phones in position number eight, among more “innocent” driver distractions like reaching, eating, grooming, reading, smoking, adjusting music and rubbernecking.

Who knew talking would rise to the top of the distraction list so quickly?  Later that same year (2005), I reported that cell phones were about to outdo rubbernecking for position number one.  The good news is that other distractions are taking a back seat; the bad news is that the distraction displacing them (cell phone use) is the worst one ever.

There have been many studies regarding drivers’ use of cell phones, and none of them are favorable.  A 2005 University of Utah study placed impairment of drivers talking on hand-held or hands-free devices at roughly the level of a drunk driver (.08 blood/alcohol level) in regard to vehicle operation and reaction time.

Drivers can easily become engrossed deeply enough in phone conversations to reduce driving attention to an unsafe level.  There is a difference to having a conversation with someone in your vehicle, as that occupant can view the driving experience with you, and adjust conversation level according to driving cues (merging, dense traffic, emergencies).

Most studies now make no differentiation between hand-held and hands-free phones when approaching the topic.  A hands-free device only removes part of the physical element of phone gabbing — holding the device.  The physical act of looking to send or receive a call and the attention-robbing conversation itself are still at play.

Unfortunately, the practice of talking on the phone while driving is not only distracting, it’s widespread.  A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounds alarming, but is believable based on what I see on the roadways.

In findings just announced, the CDC says that nearly seven of ten drivers use their phones when they’re at the wheel.  That’s right, 69 percent of drivers studied had used their cell phones while driving during the 30 days previous to the study.  The same research showed that 31 percent had sent texts or emails from the road.

If you need a reason to sharpen your defensive driving skills, those findings should supply one.  At least it can be debated how distracting a given conversation might be — I don’t think there is much question that a texting driver is unprepared to deal with traffic.

This survey did not differentiate hands-free from hand-held devices, following the theory that all phone conversations are equally distracting.  Every study of driver distraction suggests that your chances of having an accident increase when involved in any distraction.  Right now, the most prevalent one seems to be cell phone use.

Why not put the phone away while driving to decrease your chances of having an accident?  According to a non-profit injury prevention group, the National Safety Council, 24 percent of motor vehicle accidents occurring in the United States now involve drivers using cell phones.

Sure, you can drive while you talk or text and sometimes get away with it — but why take the chance?  As summed up by CDC Director Tom Frieden, “The cell phone can be a fatal distraction for those who use it while they drive.  Driving and dialing or texting don’t mix.”

In the interest of increased safety, please pull over and stop to send and receive calls or text messages.  Nothing will slow you down more than a traffic accident.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at