Even though use of handheld devices while driving has become a dangerous and growing epidemic in the US, many states still have not enacted nor enforce a usage ban.
Engaging in visual-manual subtasks -- such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting -- associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices triples the risk of getting into a crash, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Yet talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in only 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
“Handheld bans are more complicated and texting bans are not,” says Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) in Washington, D.C. “Handheld bans were not as clear to their effectiveness, they were more controversial. There are people that want to use their phones for phone conversations while they drive, that’s part of it. The other part is there’s debate on having total bans or partial, incremental bans.”
Says Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at IIHS: “It’s an easier task politically to enact a texting ban. There aren’t very many powerful constituencies that oppose a texting ban.”
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The use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in 37 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas ban novice drivers from texting while driving.
Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 44 states and the District of Columbia, but still, as many as 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or electronic devices in the U.S. at any given moment.
Four states have partial hand-held bans. Louisiana’s is targeted at drivers in signed schools zones, and at young and novice drivers under these conditions:
- all learner's permit holders, irrespective of age, and all intermediate license holders are prohibited from driving while using a hand-held cellphone.
- All drivers younger than 18 are prohibited from using any cellphone.
- All drivers, irrespective of age, issued a first driver’s license are prohibited from using a cellphone for one year.
- The cellphone ban is secondary – meaning the driver has to be stopped for a different violation -- for novice drivers ages 18 and older.
Arkansas’ partial ban affects drivers 18 or older but younger than 21; and drivers in school and highway work zones. Oklahoma’s impacts learner's permit and intermediate license holders.
And the Texas partial ban applies to drivers in school crossing zones and on public school property during the time the reduced speed limit applies.
The young and novice driver hand-held bans are not happenstance. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, 71% of teens and young people say they have composed/sent SMS messages while driving. And 78% of teens and young adults say they have read an SMS message while driving.
A University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that many teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. The same study found that 20% of teens and 10% of parents have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.
So the answer is… hands free devices? No. Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use, the US Department of Transportation found in 2009.
“This approach may have implications for ‘cognitive distraction,’” the study concluded. “Listening to the spoken sentences significantly decreased the driving accuracy and provides support for the idea that cognitive distraction plays a significant role is driver distraction as drivers were not using a hand-held device.”
Indeed, the American Automobile Association recently found that “imperfect” hands-free devices are causing “potentially” unsafe distractions (when is a distraction while driving not unsafe?).
“There’s no indication that hands-free is any safer either,” says GHSA’s Adkins. “Your mind is still distracted.”
So as more devices become more appealing and more affordable and available, it doesn’t look like these practices will downtrend anytime soon. But there’s an app for that.
The three major mobile carriers in the US – AT&T, Verizon and Sprint – all offer free Android smart-phone apps that block unwanted calls and texts. The apps can also send an automatic reply to texts that let senders know that you’re driving, according to Consumer Reports.
Cellphone and other distractions led to more than 3,300 deaths and 416,000 injuries in 2012, according to distraction.gov. If there’s not a ban on driving with a handheld device in your state, at least get an app for it.
(Take our Poll on handheld driving bans here or below.)