Hands-free cellphones just as likely to distract drivers

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; 9:24 AM

More than five years after the District banned the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, the first definitive evidence emerged Friday that it hasn't made the streets much safer.

Ten days after a national study found that cellphones and texting were to blame for 28 percent of crashes, a report released Friday concludes that hands-free cellphones are no less distracting than those held to the ear.

"Insurance collision loss experience does not indicate a decrease in crash risk when hand-held laws are enacted," said the study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "There is no evidence that bans on hand-held use by drivers has affected . . . collision claims."

As the larger issue of distracted driving has gained traction, with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the vanguard of an effort to address it, behavioral testing in laboratory settings indicates that hands-free cellphone conversations are just as distracting as the hand-held variety.

The Insurance Institute study advances that premise beyond the theoretical. Using actual crash statistics, it shows there was no significant difference in the number of accidents in the District, California or New York in the months before and after hands-free laws went into effect.

"Our concern with hand-held bans has been that these laws are encouraging drivers to go hands-free, which is just as risky," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "We need more research and data to determine whether or not hand-held bans should be implemented across the country."

Adkins said his group continues to urge states to pass texting bans but to hold off on addressing other cellphone use "until some clarity is achieved."

The report is the latest in a growing body of evidence cited by those who advocate banning all cellphone use by drivers. Texting while driving has been banned by 19 states, and four bills in Congress would make the restriction national.

This week, LaHood prohibited commercial truck and bus drivers from texting, and President Obama barred federal employees last year from texting while driving government vehicles as well as their own cars if they use government-issued phones or are on official business.

The nonprofit National Safety Council, which blames 1.4 million crashes annually on cellphone use, called last year for a ban on cellphone use while driving. This month, a new group, patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was formed to lobby Congress and state legislators on distracted driving.

With 81 percent of those surveyed acknowledging that they talk on cellphones while driving, and given a federal estimate that 812,000 drivers are using their phones at any given moment during daylight hours, any movement to ban all use while driving is likely to face opposition.

Proponents also acknowledge the challenge of enforcing texting or hand-held bans. They hope that heightening awareness of the danger of distracted driving will dissuade motorists from using the devices.

"Laws by themselves are not magic bullets," Adkins said. "The laws must be complemented with strong educational programs, enforcement, employer bans and technological advances."

The District has made an effort to enforce the hand-held ban, issuing 7,519 warnings and 12,936 tickets in 2008. The institute study found that in the first two years of the ban, collision claims declined by about 5 percent. Baltimore, Virginia and Maryland, which do not have hand-held bans, experienced similar declines during the same period.

New York, which banned hand-helds while driving in 2001, was compared with three states that allow them -- Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania -- and there was no significant difference in the number of accidents recorded. Crash patterns after California imposed a ban in 2008 mirrored those in three neighboring states -- Arizona, Nevada and Oregon -- that allow hand-held use.

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