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Cell Phone Nation

October 5, 2009
By Vanessa Weibler Paris

Cell phoneIn 1980, the number of cell phones in the world was a mere 11.2 million—just two cell phones for every 1,000 people.

Over nearly three decades, that number has gone exponential. Today, 270 million cell phone subscribers—a full 87 percent of the U.S. population—fill the airways with talk and text, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Also, minute usage has surged to more than a trillion per year.

When do we have time to talk? For many, the frightening answer is “while driving.”

A source of many distractions
The federal government estimates, based on observational data, that about a million passenger vehicles on the road at any moment during the day are driven by people talking on hand-held phones. Add the hands-free folks and the texters to that number, and that’s a lot of distracted drivers.

Do they make you nervous? Or…are you one of them? Or both? Here’s what you should know before pushing those buttons.

No hands is no better
Contrary to what you might think, hands-free doesn’t mean risk-free. Studies
suggest that there’s no real difference—at least not distraction-wise—between handset and headset.

The problem isn’t one-hand-on-the-wheel or one-eye-on-the-road. Instead, research indicates that phone conversations while driving take a huge toll on attention and visual processing skills.

One theory suggests talking on the phone generates mental images that conflict
with the spatial processing needed for safe driving. Eye-tracking studies have
shown that while drivers continually look side to side, cell phone users tend to
stare straight ahead.

Also, cell phone users may be distracted to the point where their engaged brains stop processing what they’re seeing, resulting in slower reaction times and other driving risks.

Texting is vexing
As of August 2009, texting while driving was banned in 18 states plus the District
of Columbia. Novice drivers are banned from texting behind the wheel in nine states.

Those numbers may keep rising—especially if proposed federal legislation, the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act (“ALERT Drivers” Act)—is passed. This bill would cause states that choose not to ban texting while operating a car or truck to risk losing federal highway funds.

British authorities claim that texting while driving slows reaction time by 35 percent, and a University of Utah study indicates texting is 50 percent more dangerous than talking on the phone while driving. Many believe it’s more dangerous than drunk driving, but nearly half of drivers under 25 have done it.

Under the new influence
The National Safety Council (NSC) is an organization that’s trying to drive the “don’t cell and drive” message home. The group, which publicly advocated a total ban on cell phone use while driving earlier in 2009, cites a University of Utah study that equates the reaction times of drivers on cell phones to those of drunk drivers.

“When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It’s time to take the cell phone away,” says Janet Froetscher, NSC’s president and chief executive. According to Froetscher, cell phone use increases the risk of a crash four-fold.

Yet, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that distracted driving causes 80 percent of road accidents, driving under the influence
of a phone is, in most cases, legal.

New York was the first state to pass a law banning hand-held cell phone use while
driving back in 2001. Since then, only five other states and the District of Columbia
have banned the use of hand-held cell
phones behind the wheel, according to the
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

No state currently bans all cell phone use while driving, though the NSC hopes that
will change.

It’s your only phone
Now, for the first time, the number of households nationwide that choose to have only cell phones outnumber those that have only landlines. In fact, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey,
35 percent of households—more than one in three—are basically reachable only by cell.

“There’s no question that cell phones are a huge convenience,” says IIHS’s Russ Rader. “But the research is mounting that they’re also a potential hazard behind the
wheel. Driving requires our full attention, and the road has a lot of competition
for that attention.”

The latest research, adds Rader, shows that drivers using cell phones are four
times more likely to be in a crash that causes injury to the driver.

Lesson to be learned—if it’s your only phone, take it along, but don’t use it
while driving.


Vanessa Weibler Paris is a senior brand communications specialist at Erie Insurance. She has a cell phone but fondly remembers the days of curly cords
and rotary dials.

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