This was the question raised by Drs. D. A. Redelmeier and R. J. Tibshirani, et al. recently in The New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 336, No. 7, pp. 453-458). Noting that several countries (Brazil, Israel, and parts of Australia) ban the use of cellular phones while driving, the researchers examined 699 case histories of drivers who had been involved in collisions while using cellular phones.
The study - conducted in Toronto, Canada - focused on accidents that occurred during the period between July 1, 1994 and August 31, 1995 and, more particularly, on telephone records of 16,870 calls made on the day of the collision as well as during the entire previous week. In these cases, the accidents resulted in substantial property damage, though no personal injuries were sustained (a different branch of government handled personal injuries).
The average number of calls per person per day - 3.4 placed and 0.7 received. The average duration - 2.3 minutes, with 76 percent lasting for two minutes or less. Overall, 170 subjects (24 percent) used their cellular phone starting in the ten-minute period immediately before the collision.
The authors analyzed these records and came to the following conclusions:
- The risk of a collision when using a cellular telephone was four times higher than the risk when the phone was not in use.
- Driving was also more hazardous during the period immediately following a phone call than it was after fifteen minutes or more had elapsed.
- The risk was similar for drivers of all ages, experience, and other identifiable characteristics - though, predictably, young people were slightly more inclined to have a collision than were older people.
- Whether the cellular phone was hand-held or installed in the automobile itself made no statistical difference. Even with both hands free, drivers had an increased number of accidents.
- Cellular phones seem to contribute to high-speed collisions more often than to accidents in such places as parking lots and gasoline stations.
The companion editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine cited research demonstrating that during telephone conversations involving mental tasks, reaction time was slowed by a half second or more and that the act of steering while on the phone was consequently less precise. The editors concluded that the question of whether or not a hands-free phone was safer than a hand-held phone was open to further examination, since the Redelmeier-Tibshriani study was too small to be definitive.
So what should you make of these findings?
Motor vehicle collisions are among the leading causes of death in North America, and they are the most frequent cause among children and young adults. While the cause of collisions varies, the authors point out that driver error is involved in 90 percent of accidents, so loss of concentration is obviously an important factor.
For this reason, drivers who use cellular phones should be aware of the heightened risks and should take the following precautionary measures:
- When driving and especially while using a cellular phone, pay more attention to the road than you normally do. This is not a time to be on "automatic pilot."
- You might consider restricting your use of the cellular phone to calls of genuine importance. This is probably not a good time to engage in idle chatter.
- If another person is in the automobile, you might allow him or her to make the call for you.
- Keep your calls brief.
- Avoid high speeds while on the phone.
- Avoid calls during bad weather or when driving conditions are hazardous.
- If the call you are making requires your undivided attention, or is emotionally draining, pull off the road to continue the conversation.
Clearly, the use of cellular phones is increasing dramatically as more and more people find them useful and can afford them. This growth in use should stimulate further research - and perhaps even attempts to regulate or prohibit them. The industry should pay close attention to studies like this and develop safety devices and strategies that will minimize the risk - otherwise, they can expect consumer advocacy groups to be pounding at the door.
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