Corner readers rule. From a researcher:
I follow research for our state’s highway safety office. Without being able to access that Washington Post article from here, several points on cell phones in cars:
1. The vast majority of evidence indicates that using a cell phone while driving impairs driving. Some estimates place it as high as several drinks. Reaction and stopping times are both slower, but then so are driving speeds.
2. Despite this, I believe that the dangers of cell phones are exaggerated. http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/research/auditorytask/pages/TRD.html is a recent study from the federal government on why most studies are weak. “Phone tasks” are not representative of real conversations, driving simulators are not the real thing, people can choose not to answer the phone in heavy traffic, people who talk on cell phones get better at talking while driving, and most of them are younger people who have better reaction times anyway. The latest piece of research I saw (“Profiles in driver distraction” in Human Factors 46(4)) suggests that young drivers on cell phones have the same reaction times as older drivers not on cell phones. If you ban cell phones because of their effects on driving, you also need to ban either aging or older drivers.
3. The most common distraction in a car is music. When a driver crashes because of not paying attention, the two most common reasons are fiddling with the radio/CD player or no particular reason (“I was just thinking about something else..”). Almost every driver is distracted by it at some point. The most distracting thing in the car is a small child. AAA found that having a young child in the car causes more distraction than any other single item. I have seen no proposals to ban either music or children from cars.
4. The last time I checked a couple of years ago, 5% of the drivers on our state’s roads were on a cell phone at the time. I expect that number to have gone up.
5. Cell phones are appearing in crashes less then 5% of the time, which probably indicates under-reporting rather than drivers being safer using cell phones. There is no historical data, since cell phones were only added to reporting forms recently, and officers may not be used to marking it. Also, as others have said, you can turn the phone off and not mention it to the officer.
Obviously, I am picking and choosing my sources, but there is no evidence that cell phones are causing a lot of crashes, and those they are causing are likely low-speed fender benders. Cell phones are not a significant contributor to America’s 40,000+ traffic fatalities every year. It would be better if people used cell phones less while driving, but non-use of safety belts, drunk driving, and speeding are the top factors killing drivers.
Actually, the single largest problem for traffic fatalities could be summarized as “young men.” Men 16-24 (and 16-34, to a lesser extent) have the highest crash involvement and the worst incidence of almost every driving problem. I have never heard of anyone proposing to raise the male driving age to 30, though it would probably prevent over 10,000 deaths a year.
Sorry for running long. Please don’t cite me by name/state if some part makes it into the Corner, since I am our research guy, not our public affairs person. I doubt that she responds to bloggers, so this is going direct to you, unfiltered.