Hands Off the Cellphone While Driving

view of driver's hands texting while driving on busy city streets

Normally safety professionals would be advocating for a “hands-on” approach to workplace safety.  But in this case, we all need to keep our hands off the cellphone while driving.  In September, Maine becomes the 19th state, plus the District of Columbia, to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving.

In 2001 New York became the first state to ban hand-held cell phone use.  Texting is banned for all drivers in 48 states and DC (Montana has no ban, Missouri bans texting only for drivers 21 and younger).  Young drivers are banned entirely from using cell phones (restriction details vary) in all but 12 U.S. states.  Click here to see state by state data and research details from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The effectiveness of these restrictions and bans is very difficult to demonstrate statistically.  The evidence is pretty clear that texting while driving increases the risk of crashes significantly.  Evidence supporting that hands-free use is safer is much harder to substantiate.  Although distraction of any kind can be a serious risk when driving, the manipulating of the cellphone or other electronic device certainly takes the driver’s eyes off the road for potentially prolonged periods.  Considering a vehicle moving at highways speeds is traveling about 100 feet per second it is a no-brainer to say this distraction could cause serious safety issues.

Approximately 3% of drivers nationwide are using a handheld cellphone at any typical daylight moment according to research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  This is an estimate made from roadside observations in 2017.  Although that sounds like a low percentage, it does represent over 415,000 drivers.  The NHTSA has also compiled estimates on the number of drivers using headsets and those observed manipulating electronic devices.  Click here to see the entire Traffic Safety Facts report for the details with data back to 2006. 

Vehicle deaths in 2018 are estimated to be over 40,000 for the third consecutive year.  This represents more than a 20% increase in total fatalities since 2014.  The increases in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in this period are even higher.  Vehicle technology and survivability are better now than ever, yet the number of deaths are increasing.  Miles driven in the U.S. are certainly increasing each year, but according to the Department of Transportation, miles driven in 2017 were only about 5% more than driven in 2014.  So what’s causing the significant increase in fatalities? 

As we’ve pointed out many times in previous posts, driving is a serious responsibility for all drivers.  Human error is responsible for almost all crashes, and distraction is a significant factor.  Police reported crash data is not reliable for identifying causal factors like distraction as most drivers do not admit to being distracted or using a cellphone.  So regardless of what the law says or what the numbers might prove, it makes good sense to put down the phone and drive.  In the case of hands-free states, this is now required.  But it doesn’t completely eliminate the issue of cognitive distraction.  So knowing that a phone conversation, or an email, or a text is not worth the price paid for a crash, the best solution is limit cellphone use to times you aren’t driving. 

I can’t say it any better than Nicholas Smith, the interim president and CEO of the National Safety Council.  “Forty-thousand deaths is unacceptable.  We cannot afford to tread water any more.  We know what works, but we need to demonstrate the commitment to implementing the solutions.  Roadway deaths are preventable by doubling down on what works, embracing technology advancements and creating a culture of safer driving.”

By Randy Klatt