Ban on hand-held cellphones not likely to make drivers safer

A driver talks on a cellphone while traveling south on Broadway in Bangor.
Bridget Brown | BDN
A driver talks on a cellphone while traveling south on Broadway in Bangor.
Posted Feb. 20, 2013, at 2:24 p.m.

The National Safety Council has a ticker on its website that tracks crashes involving drivers talking on a cellphone or texting while operating vehicles on U.S. roads. Based on the average number of cellphone-related crashes each year, the six-digit counter changes every 24 seconds.

Using National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, the National Safety Council estimates that 28 percent of all crashes in the U.S. annually — about 1.6 million — involve drivers using a cellphone or texting. An NHTSA website devoted to distracted driving attributed 3,331 traffic fatalities and 387,000 crash-related injuries in 2011 to distracted driving, primarily caused by motorists’ use of cellphones.

Those statistics make it understandable that some lawmakers in Maine, which in 2011 banned texting while driving and barred new drivers from any form of cellphone use, would want stricter measures against cellphone use by motorists on the state’s roads.

One of those legislators, Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, proposed legislation that would prohibit motorists from operating vehicles while using a handheld cellphone. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to recommend that Beaudoin’s bill “ought not to pass.”

We endorse the committee’s recommendation. Beaudoin’s bill derives from good intentions but as written it likely would not make Maine’s roads any safer.

Research on cellphone use while driving shows that it’s no safer to operate a motor vehicle while talking on a hands-free cellphone than a handheld device. An April 2012 National Safety Council report, “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones is Risky Behavior,” lists results from multiple comparative studies that found no statistical difference between the ways hands-free and handheld cellphone use affect drivers’ performance.

In fact, a 2009 Dalhousie University review determined that some “drivers compensate for the deleterious effects of cellphone use when using a handheld phone but neglect to do so when using a hands-free phone.”

The state already has a distracted driving law, which took effect in 2009. That law focuses on motorists’ behavior, not on devices that might affect that behavior. It also allows law enforcement officers to concentrate on how motorists are operating their vehicles rather than on items in their hands or on their dashboards that might impair the way they do so.

All of the studies cited in the National Safety Council report did show conclusively that any type of cellphone use while behind the wheel slows drivers’ reaction times, increases the likelihood of erratic operation and raises the chances of crashes by as much as four times the rate of motorists not using a cellphone.

That data should be a wake-up call for Maine drivers to reconsider their cellphone use on the road — perhaps limiting it to emergencies or quick check-ins rather than conversations — and to minimize other distractions in their vehicles.

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