Last year my town made it illegal to use a “hands-on” cell phone while driving–hands-free phones are still OK. Since laws here tend to get passed on the basis of what will look good in the newspapers, I’m wondering: How dangerous is cell phone use in cars really? You see drivers all the time drinking coffee, putting on makeup, chatting with passengers, etc. As distractions go, the only obvious difference with cell phones is that they’re relatively new and thus a target for legislative busybodies and the easily alarmed–there was all that noise a while back about cell phones causing brain cancer. What’s the Straight Dope, Cecil? For that matter, what’s up with cell phones and cancer? –Fritz R., Chicago
Wish I could tell you it was all crap, companero, but uh-uh. Accumulating evidence suggests gabbing on the phone while driving is definitely dangerous, probably more so than other distractions. What’s more, hands-free phones don’t solve the problem. What gets you into trouble, it seems, isn’t so much fumbling with the phone (though that doesn’t help) as the apparent fact that driving and conducting a conversation at the same time consumes more mental processing power than most people can spare. A few data points:
In another study, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute installed cameras, sensors, and data-recording equipment in 100 cars, then watched what happened over the ensuing 12 to 13 months. They recorded 69 crashes, 761 near crashes, and 8,295 lesser close calls. Of driver distractions that may have contributed to these incidents, use of cell phones was by far the most common, occurring in close to 700 cases. The distant runner-up was “passenger-related” activities, presumably including conversation, with fewer than 400 instances. Of the cell-phone-related distractions, 87 involved dialing a handheld phone and 466 talking or listening.
Other cell phone risks quickly noted:
On the bright side, cell phone interference with medical devices seems to have diminished, due in part to replacement of analog phones by digital ones. Finally, news of a cell-phone-abetted breakthrough in medical diagnosis: UK doctors report that a patient claimed to have “small bumps” in a delicate spot, but by the time he showed up at the clinic the bumps had subsided. “Fortunately, the patient had taken . . . both a still and a video of his penis” using his cell phone. “The images were very clear and there was no doubt this man had had an outbreak of genital herpes.” Ain’t progress great?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.