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Cell Phone Usage While Driving Compared to Driving Drunk

Effective Living

Summary. Oprah Winfrey recently launched a campaign against talking on the phone while driving. Oprah claims (on her website) that: “Talking on a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk.” The website doesn’t make much of a distinction between the dangers of texting or talking, but seems to suggest that these are equally dangerous.

Misguided and Irrational. Sometimes well-meaning emotional and passionate campaigns get launched, based on anecdotal evidence or individual personal experience, and then, subsequently, over-reaching and irrational legislation gets passed that constrains and impacts many people.

Contradictions. The American Automobile Association is pushing for laws to ban all cell phone usage, even hands-free. Yet, their agency is disseminating conflicting information. According to Catherine L. Rossi, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic:

Research shows that hands-free phones offer no real safety advantages over hand-held phones. The distracting factor is the conversation, not the device itself. ~ Catherine L. Rossi, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic

This is the argument being used by AAA to ban use of all communication devices while driving. Yet, their argument simply proves the point that it only makes sense to ban any conversations at all, even those with someone riding in the car. It simply doesn’t make sense. Yes, obviously not talking at all while driving might allow someone to focus more on the road, yet it might also lull them into a sleepy stupor of boredom while driving. Stimulation is actually helpful to keep drivers alert. A sleepy driver on their way home may want to stay alert by talking to their spouse.

Considerations. It seems that other factors and considerations should be evaluated when considering how to improve driving safety.

  • It’s common when driving to get on the phone with someone to ask for turn-by-turn directions and instructions. Having an accurate guide or navigator on the phone can help reduce erratic driving.
  • Are headphones being used or not?
  • Is the conversation casual and relaxed or heated?
  • What are the driving conditions? Fast or slow? Icy, wet, or dry road? Busy traffic? Only person on the road? How fast is the vehicle going?
  • Wouldn’t a heated argument with someone in the car be equally distracting or more distracting than talking to someone on the phone?
  • What about talking to children in the back seat while driving? Should children be banned?
  • How experienced is the driver?
  • For years, driving games have been popular for parents and children on long drives. Should these games be made illegal since they distract drivers?

Update. Only a few days after the posting of this article on January 26, 2010 at 12:44 PM CT, this story made national headline news after a report by the Highway Los Data Institute was made public on January 29, 2010. The full report is available online as a PDF. From the report summary,

As state legislators across the United States enact laws that ban phoning and/or texting while driving, a new Highway Loss Data Institute study finds no reductions in crashes after hand-held phone bans take effect. Comparing insurance claims for crash damage in 4 US jurisdictions before and after such bans, the researchers find steady claim rates compared with nearby jurisdictions without such bans. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Commentary. Below are video commentaries by Gregory Johnson on this issue. The most recent is at the top.

Enforcement. This video describes the challenges with enforcement.

How Will We Outlaw Everything Else? The absurdity of trying to make cell phone conversation illegal while driving is made apparent in this video that shows a variety of other activities people engage in while driving that are just as dangerous if not more dangerous than talking on a cell phone. Click here for an ABC News video about other kinds of distracted drivers.

Illegal to Walk and Talk on Cell Phone? Laws are established to help protect people. Seat belt laws, for example, help save lives. It’s presumed that a ban on cell phone use while driving will save lives. Should cell phone use while walking be banned.

Shock and Awe Campaign. The anti-cell phone lobby is very strong, and now they are using fear tactics and sensationalism in numerous videos. Below are a few examples from the National Safety Council. These include very passionate heartfelt appeals based on anecdotal events, yet they are obviously very deeply and personally traumatic to those involved. The problem, as even these videos admit, are all distractions. Some people are careless and easily distracted. Others can be alert and responsible even when other things are going on around them.

Other PSAs. Below is an example of another PSA about distracted driving.

Irrational and Illogical. One of the common irrational and illogical attacks on cell phone usage while driving is to depict someone talking on the phone and looking up or looking away from the road, as if daydreaming, because they are on the cell phone. Obviously not all people do this while talking on the phone some people remain alert and attentive to their surroundings.

Document History. This document was first published on 20100131su1635. Updated videos were added on 20100223tu1136.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com