Cell phones dangerous whether hands-free or hand-held, study says

Conversation is factor that causes distraction

July 12, 2005|By James S. Granelli | James S. Granelli,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A study of cell phone use by motorists shows that you aren't any better off using headsets in the car than holding the phone to your ear: You're still four times more likely to end up in a crash and injured.

The survey, released yesterday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that using mobile phones while driving was just as dangerous regardless of whether you're chatting through a headset or holding on to the hand set.

The report, which compared phone records with the times of accidents, said the risk was just as great across all age groups and in both sexes.

It's not just the distraction from keying in phone numbers or calling up messages but the conversation itself that can be distracting, said Anne T. McCartt, the insurance institute's research executive overseeing the study.

"There's the possibility that some technology in the future would eliminate distractions from using the phone in the car, but it's hard to think of any way to eliminate the distraction from the conversation," she said. "Your brain can only perform so many tasks at once."

The research, conducted in Australia, was published in the British Medical Journal.

The insurance institute had to go to Perth, Australia, to conduct the survey because U.S. carriers would not permit a look at phone records to verify the driver's distraction at the time of a crash and to look at appropriate comparison periods.

McCartt said Perth, with 1.3 million residents, is comparable to many U.S. cities. Western Australia bans the use of cell phones while driving unless hands-free devices are used. Still, about a third of the crash victims interviewed, she said, were holding phones to their ears.

The American Insurance Association, a Washington trade group for insurers, hailed the survey.

"This study reinforces the fact that cell phone use is a major distraction and increases injury and death," said Julie Rochman, an executive with the group.

The results could bolster the wireless industry's arguments against hands-free laws, or it could have the opposite effect of leading to bans on cell phone use altogether while driving.

A hands-free law, however, could help to get drivers holding their cell phones to their ears to turn them off and put them down, preventing some accidents, she said.

The proliferation of mobile phones - the number of subscribers in the United States passed the number of land lines last fall - has had profound effects on society. The prospect of their use in airplanes has some people in a rage.

But drivers with hand sets to their ears are more ubiquitous than any other kind of cell phone users. Last year, customers spent 40 percent of their time on mobile phones while driving, according to a May survey of consumer habits by the Yankee Group research firm in Boston.

Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, requiring motorists to use headsets or other hands-free devices instead. A federal bill in 2001 never got anywhere.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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