Moves to bar drivers from using cell phones have been driven by the mantra that a phone-holding driver is as dangerous as a drunk one. However, a new study found cell phones may actually keep some drivers safer. Here's how.
The original claim grew from research by psychologists at the University of Utah in 2003, who used driving simulators to test volunteers' reactions while talking and while drunk. The result: "Driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as or maybe worse than driving drunk," the researchers reported.
That claim has since become part of the accepted canon about road safety, repeated by everyone from Oprah to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in his campaign against distracted driving. Eight states, including California, have made talking on a handheld cell phone while driving illegal. Even Mythbusters ran an experiment similar to the Utah research last April, and got the same result. And It sounds like common sense: Splitting your mind's attention between the road and whatever someone's blathering into your ear over a cell phone must be dangerous.
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Except no one's really been able to prove that it works that way on the road. Drunk driving causes about 7% of all crashes and 40% of fatal U.S. crashes every year. Given how often we're talking on the phone, the streets should be a "Mad Max"-like hellscape of broken glass and bleeding victims. Yet as cellphone use has gone up, crashes have continued to decline.
The new study comes from economists Saurabh Bhargava at the University of Chicago and Vikram Pathania of the London School of Economics. They come at the question from a different direction, starting by using data from a cell phone company on up to 440,000 calls made from California drivers during an 11-day period in 2005. The researchers were able to separate drivers from other users by filtering for calls that switched among cell towers.
Their earlier research showed that when cell phone companies had rates that dropped at 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday nights, calling jumped up. The economists matched their calling data with crash reports for just before and just after 9 p.m, when they could prove calls from drivers on the road increased, and found no significant increase in crashes. When they expanded their scope to additional years and nearby states, there was still no rise in wrecks.
Explanations? The economists offer three possible takes. People who start talking while driving become more cautious. People who act like jackholes behind the wheel with a cellphone will act the same without one. And although cellphones clearly distract some drivers, they may also help other drivers stay alert.
At the very least, research like this should cause some reflection among the zealous anti-phone and driving types. But it also shows how even what seems like common sense isn't always sensical when it comes to auto safety, despite what Oprah might think.
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