Driving Under the Influence
By Heidi Kriz, Fri Jun 01 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Cell phone use in cars stirs emotion, and legislative efforts.

A mobile phone is a device that often prompts a flurry of emotion in it's owner. In a radically short period of time, cell phones have become as integrated into the life of the average modern citizen as cars or PC's. Simultaneously, it has produced lifestyle and behavioral changes, some of which are being criticized, and even controlled, by lawmakers around the world.

Among the most provocative arenas of regulation concerns the use of cell phones while driving. Many countries in Europe and Asia have already enacted various levels of regulation with regard to driving with cell phones.

In Switzerland, drivers with car phones must sign a declaration with their insurance companies that prohibit them from making a call while driving. In Britain there is a mandate against driving with hand-held cell phones, and there is an outright ban on the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers in Japan, Portugal, Singapore and Israel.

All in all, 22 countries have already enacted cell phone restrictions on drivers.

According to global industry observers, most of this legislative activity took place without too much fuss in most countries. But that is not proving to be the case in the United States, where current, nationwide attempts to regulate and dictate cell phone use while driving have kicked up a dust storm of controversy.

The Redelmeir report

Much of the fuss started in 1997, after the publishing of an article in the influential New England Journal of Medicine. The article analyzed the impact of cell phone use on traffic accidents. The study concluded, "the risk of a collision when using a cellular telephone was four times higher than when a cellular telephone was not being used."

One of the authorýs of the study, Donald Redelmeir, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, says that about 700 people a year are killed in the United States in traffic accidents caused by cell phones.

Nevertheless, while that figure sounds horribly high, in fact it is less than 2 percent of the approximately 40,000 people who die in car accidents per year.

In fact, the rate of traffic deaths in the US has been in decline for the last fifty years. The number of cell phone users has doubled since 1998, but traffic deaths and injuries remain at nearly all-time lows.

Because of the hard fact of these statistics, industry observers say that it is very unlikely that there will be an outright ban on cell phone while driving. It is also an action considered not very politically expedient, in light of the billions of cell phone users worldwide, and the enormous lobbying power of the industry itself.

But the issue is still hot political fodder in the States, for reasons, that to some in the US, seem based less on hard data and more on civic sentiment.

Political fodder

"Since cell phones are so ubiquitous now, they are resulting in behavioral changes in people, privately and publicly - and they inspire a lot of emotion, good and bad," says California Assemblyman Joseph Simitian, who is sponsoring 'AB 911' - a bill that would require the use of cell phone headsets, instead of hand held devices, while driving in California.

Nevertheless, Simitian claims that there is lots of evidence citing cell phone use while driving as a serious safety issue, citing dozens of studies like the one conducted by the California Highway Patrol.

The results indicated a significant increase rate among drivers with cellular phones for inattention, unsafe speed, driving on the wrong side of road, striking a fixed object, overturning their vehicle, swerving prior to the accident, and running off the roadway.

Most of these studies so far have not examined the use of cell phone headsets, only handsets.

One that has, the Redelmeir study, concluded there was no significant reduction in hazards between the use of handsets versus headsets. But Simitian says that using a hand held device must be riskier, because you have to take at least one hand off the car wheel to do so.

"Anytime you're driving with just one hand, that's riskier. I don't claim that my handset bill will solve all the problems associated with the hazards of cell phone use while driving. But it's a start," says Simitian.

It's a start that may never GET a start, at least for the time being. In early May, the bill did not receive enough votes in committee to move to the next stage of legislation. Simitian has asked for a re-vote, which should take place in the next few weeks.

In fact, his quashing of restrictive legislation is a phenomenon that is taking place all over the country. In spite of at least 100 legislative proposals around the country to regulate talking on the cell phone while driving, no state has approved any of them.

This year alone, legislators introduced 89 bills in 38 states. But as of early May, 30 proposals had already died in 15 of the states. Many point to the powerful industry lobby as the primary reason for this phenomenon.

"Representatives from Sprint PCS, Cingular and AT&T, would literally camp out for days in front of legislators offices, trying to kill restrictive bills," says Simitian.

One major industry exception has been Verizon. In fact, the company approached Simitian and asked him to sponsor a headset bill in the first place. Simitian thinks Verizon is doing this out of "enlightened self-interest."

"They see the writing on the wall, that regulation of some kind will happen eventually," he says.

"There are already so many proposals on a local level to regulate use while driving that it could result in a crazy, patchwork quilt of all these different rules across one state. If we have one rule for the whole state, it's much better for the industry and drivers."

Data called into question

"One of the problems in analyzing the safety question of driving and cell phone use, is that there are many issues embedded in the larger issue," says Dr. Michael Goodman of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US.

Goodman is part of a current effort at the NHTSA to collect state-of-the-art crash data on the matter, in order to help policy makers and legislators decide what regulations, if any, are needed.

According to Goodman, there are three sources of data concerning cell phone use while driving: 1.) anecdotal, 2.) pre-existing research studies, which show crash 'associations', but not 'causality' 3.) crash data itself.

Goodman says the most useful and relevant source for policy makers to make decisions is the crash data itself. But, until now, the crash data available has 'been very poor'.

"We know that crashes are happening while people are driving and using a cell phone," says Goodman, who is the Chief of Driver Behavior, Research and Simulation at the NHTSA.

"What we don't know is the magnitude of the problem."

Goodman says that this June, the NHTSA is going to start collecting data using a first-of-its-kind technology called the National Advance Driving Simulator or NADS.

It's like a flight simulator, only for driving. It will duplicate the experience of every possible cell phone and driving scenario for its test drivers, collecting data from their actions and the consequences of their actions.

But until more data like the kind above is collected, some analysts believe that it is simply premature to start regulating cell phone use at any level while driving. One such analyst is Joshua Cohen, a senior research associate at the Harvard University Center for Risk Analysis.

"In our studies, we took a look at the information out there and tried to get a handle on both sides of the coin - the risks, and then something that very few people talk about - the benefits of the use of cell phones while driving," says Cohen.

"We knew that cell phones could be distracting, but we wanted to be able to quantify the risk. And we came to the conclusion that the risk is real, but not enormous."

Researchers at Harvard's CRA used a traditional economist's concept to do this, known as 'consumer surplus,' which measures the difference between the 'value' a consumer places on the service and the 'price,' they pay for it.

Cohen says the data available right now does not indicate that it is the right time for restrictive legislation - "Our findings indicate that at this time, legislation would not be warranted".

Cohen does not rule out such legislation in the future, though. But he feels more research is necessary first.

"The problem is, you can't study the technology in this setting if it's banned, and it becomes harder to undo legislation down the road that is eventually outmoded by new data," he says.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.