Cell Phones — Reach Out and Wreck Someone?

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cell phones

"Friends don’t let friends drive with cellular phones." That’s one way of interpreting a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The sentence may be an overstatement, but on-road chatter may be a major cause for concern.

In the study, Canadian researchers found that drivers using car phones are four times more likely to be involved in an accident than those who don’t use them. It relied on a large sample group of cell-phone users who have been involved in mishaps and agreed to release their phone records. These showed that subjects often had their collisions within minutes of initiating a call.

Critics of the study abound, but their reactions appear both knee-jerk and silly. One made the rather weak claim that "perhaps people with high-pressure jobs are more likely to have cellular phones and perhaps [those jobs are] more likely to cause the driver to be distracted and to have an accident."

Dialing for death?

He also tried to minimize the risks by saying that even as cell phone usage has gone up, vehicle deaths have gone down. But that just means that the death rate decline was so steep that any increase from cell phone-related accidents wasn’t enough to cancel it out. Death rates in the United States overall have gone down considerably over the last decade, even as the AIDS epidemic hit its peak. Does that mean no one died of AIDS?

At the same time other critics have taken the study to task for exactly opposite reasons, saying that a connection between car phone use and accidents is so obvious that the study was a dumb waste of Canadian dollars. Seems those researchers just can’t win.

In any case, the study went far beyond confirming a general hypothesis to actually quantifying the risk. It found it was on the same level as drinking alcohol while driving — the greatest single hazard on the road.

In a nation that has become obsessed with tiny or possibly non-existent risks from pesticides, power lines, passive smoke, and lots of things that don’t begin with the letter "p," it remains that accidental death is one of our major killers and nothing causes more accidental death and injury than motor vehicles.

How many of us know somebody who personally was killed in one? I’ve lost a godfather/uncle and two roommates in three separate vehicle accidents.

If cellular phones are going to magnify this risk, it’s serious business.

To be specific, your overall risk of dying in a car accident this year is about one in 6,000. If it turns out that the four-fold increased risk of accidents from cell phone usage also leads to a four-fold increased risk of death, this makes your odds shoot up to one in 1,500.

Your overall risk of being disabled in a car accident this year is about one in 124. A four-fold increase would make that skyrocket to one in 31. Further, it’s not just the driver who is being endangered, but passengers, pedestrians, and people in other cars.

Sure, hang-gliding is a relatively dangerous sport, but only for the hang-glider. When I’m out walking the dog I don’t usually worry about somebody dropping out of the sky on my head. (The fact that I don’t have a dog is beside the point.)

I have better reason to worry about being run down by some bozo hurtling down the road while he coos at his girlfriend over the airwaves or screams at his broker over the phone because his stock in Amalgamated Aardvarks took a plunge.

Three countries and two states in Australia already ban the use of a phone while the car is moving. At least one state legislature — Illinois’ — is now considering such legislation, as well. It may ultimately prove warranted. But it only nibbles at the edges of a bigger problem.

The fact is that it’s not just cell phones but distractions in general that cause traffic accidents. How about:

  • Women applying makeup and lipstick in the mirror. (Sorry about the sexist nature of that remark; I should also include transvestites.)
  • Men flipping through the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition on the passenger seat, trying to find that photo in which you can see through the model’s bikini top.
  • Engaging in that particularly American obsession of eating and drinking in the car. Only in America could a woman win a $3 million settlement for spilling a cup of hot coffee on her lap in the car while exercising her God-given right to pull off the spill-proof cap to add cream.

The fact is, as long as people behave carelessly, the risk will be high and the distractions of modern life are making this all the worse. The purchase of car phones is soaring and they may soon become as commonplace as cup holders.

Laws can only do so much. The main thing any of us can do to make the road safe is to take some responsibility and drive smartly. Consider anybody who’s yakking on the phone while weaving in and out of traffic to be an idiot — especially if that person is you.