Cell-phoning while driving raises risks Federal study links device to higher rate of crashes

January 08, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Talking on a cellular telephone while driving increases your risk of having a crash, although better accident reporting is needed before officials can say by how much, a major new federal report says.

As the phones become more common and are expected to top 100 million by the year 2000, they are likely to contribute to more crashes, said the report released yesterday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Unlike an earlier Canadian study, the NHTSA report didn't try to quantify the risk because, it said, most police agencies do not routinely note whether drivers involved in crashes were on the phone. Only Oklahoma and Minnesota include a separate space on police accident reports for officers to note cellular phone use.

"It makes sense there would be a relationship between cellular phones and crashes, but the big question is, How big a problem is it?" said Elisa Braver, senior research analyst at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Canadian study last year attempted to quantify the problem by comparing phone records with accident reports. Researchers found that talking on a phone while driving quadruples the risk of an accident.

The new NHTSA study mentioned a pilot program in the Baltimore-Washington and Northern Virginia areas in which police agencies were asked to identify phone-related crashes. Many motorists have complained about erratic or reckless driving by cellular phone users, and the police reports of cell phone accidents bolstered those observations: A woman driving minivan near her home was startled by the ringing of her cellular phone. When she reached for it, she ran off the road and sideswiped a tree. Her child, in the front seat, received fatal head injuries.

A repairman in a van was talking on his cell phone and taking notes when he ran a red light and collided with another vehicle. A representative of the service company said its employees often take notes and use phones while driving.

A 50-year-old woman driving a minivan took her eyes off the road to pick up her phone and rear-ended a school bus stopped at a railroad crossing. The air bags in her minivan deployed, and a 6-year-old child in the front seat was critically injured.

A pickup truck drifted out of its lane while its driver was on a cell phone and forced another vehicle off the road. The truck then struck the other vehicle, which hit a third car. The truck driver denied using the cell phone, although witnesses said otherwise.

The reluctance of drivers to admit being on the phone after a crash further frustrates efforts to obtain data on the problem, the report noted.

"That kind of information is not usually documented anywhere," said Susan McKenna, spokeswoman for the National Association Independent Insurers.

The NHTSA report urges police agencies to collect information on cell phone use routinely during crash investigations. It also called for better consumer education and more research into which phones are easiest to use. Because crash data are limited, however, the agency urged legislators to exercise caution before adopting laws restricting phone use.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association agrees with those recommendations, spokesman Tim Ayers said. "We're working to educate our consumers that their first obligation when they get behind the wheel is to drive safely," he said.

The standardized accident report forms used by police in Maryland do not include a space for recording cellular phone use, although a handwritten note can be made, said State Police Sgt. Laura Lu Herman. "It may be something that has the potential to be amended to the reporting format of our current accident reports," she said.

Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said his agency will look at the report's recommendations. "Based on our experience so far, cell phones have not been a significant contributor to major accidents," he said.

Police, the cell phone industry and motorists say phones can improve safety when used to report crashes or drunken drivers, and to summon help in emergencies.

"The problem comes when people act as if their car is a phone booth and get into long, drawn-out conversations," said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for AAA-Potomac, the automobile club.

"It's frustrating for other motorists, who don't use their cell phones except for emergencies, to be behind someone who isn't paying attention."

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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