Cell Phone Driving Dangerous: We Know, Don’t Care

The release for a new Harris Poll is titled “Large Majority of Drivers Who Own Cell Phones Use Them While Driving Even Though They Know This Is Dangerous.”  The key findings:

  • 72% of those who drive and own cell phones say they use them to talk while they are driving;
  • A quarter of drivers with cell phones report using them to send or receive text messages while driving, although a large majority (74%) does not.
  • Most of these people (66%) say they usually use hand-held rather than handsfree telephones to talk;
  • Even in states that have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, half (49%) of cell phone users use hand-held, rather than hands-free, phones;
  • Only 2% of those who use cell phones while driving believe this is not dangerous at all. Most believe it is very dangerous (26%), dangerous (24%) or somewhat dangerous (33%);
  • A 71% majority of those who use cell phones while driving believes that handsfree cell phones are safer than hand-held phones (even though some research suggest otherwise);
  • Younger drivers are more likely than older drivers to talk on the phone while driving. Most (58%) “Matures” (people older than Baby Boomers, currently aged 64 or over) who drive and own cell phones say they do not use their cell phones while driving; and,

Andrew Malcolm quips, “So much for legislating chatter” and snarks “Prohibition laws caused the entire nation to stop drinking alcoholic beverages so successfully.”  And, indeed, the two may be comparable in that it’s very hard to stop people from doing what they want to do.  Even good citizens routinely exceed the speed limit and jaywalk, for example, because they (er, we) trust our own judgment and value our own convenience.

He also cites a 2003 Harvard study showing that “cellphone use contributed to 6% of all U.S. crashes, or 636,000 collisions, 330,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths annually.”  From this, he concludes, “Put another way, the risk center numbers would tell determined cellphone drivers that if they’re ever in an automobile accident, there’s a 94% chance it won’t have anything to do with their phone. Better odds than the lottery.”

Certainly, the odds of a particular cell phone conversation resulting in a serious accident are virtually nil.  The problem, of course, is that having most drivers on the road — and especially teens, the least safe among them — yapping on their phones increases everyone else’s risks.  And, while you or I may be able to successfully drive while engaging in a conversation via our mobiles, some percentage of the other drivers (in my experience, a number approaching 100%) are much less intelligent.

I’m not at all sure what the solution is.  The poll already demonstrates that people are aware of the danger; they merely discount it.  So education isn’t the likely solution.  Similarly, the fact that it’s illegal doesn’t seem to make much difference; people rationally conclude that the odds of getting caught are nil. And, frankly, I don’t want an army of cops out there peering into our windows.

So this may just be one of those dangers of living that we’ll have to cope with.

Photo by Flickr user Ryan Harvey under Creative Commons license.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Public Opinion Polls, Science & Technology, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Does anyone believe that most people talk on cellphones while they’re walking down the street? If we were doing that much walking obesity would be a significantly smaller problem.

    Cellphones are most useful when you can’t use a landline and much of the time that’s when you shouldn’t be using a phone at all.

  2. rodney dill says:

    While I have used a cell phone while driving, I usually avoid it, because it makes it difficult to drive.

    I try to use my On-star phone (I never seem to use it enough to use up my minutes purchased within a year), which at least has voice dial, but even that is some distraction.

  3. odograph says:

    I think getting my bluetooth handsfree online might be more dangerous than old-school talking on the cell.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Seat belt laws worked. Cell phone laws will likely work as well. That is a much better comparison than alcohol prohibition and cell phones.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    I am reminded of a confrontation I had with a cop some years ago, about the fact that I was speaking to a freind on the CB and how that “might” affect my driving. He actally went by me noticed I was speaking on the mike, and turned around to stop me.

    (Of course, what the cop was pissed off about was the idea that the guy I was talking to had warned me of the radar gun in the cop’s hand, but I digress.)

    As the cop was running my plates, I wandered back to his car, and looked at all the equipment in the car, incuding several two-way radios, and the camera and the radar equipment. I observed by way of conversation that it looked like there might be a number of things to distract the cop’s attention from his driving. I asked if he used the handheld radar gun while driving. (I’d already seen him doing so as he drove by me)

    His answer: “Have a nice day”, and he sped off, presumably in search of more compliant game.

    Since that time, of course, most cop cars are equipped with computers, to tie into NCIS systems, and for dispatching and job logging purposes. Which, of course adds but one more major distraction. Funny how the police are exempt from such laws.

    Oh, and did I mention most carry cell phones, these days? Around here we see them being used by the police while driving dispite the fact that were *I* to use one while driving I’d be helping the state out of it’s financial crisis by way of a hefty fine, as a result of a ticket issues by the very same cop.

    I am firmly convinced that most laws issued under the guise of ‘being safe’ are in fact written for the puprose of generating a nice stream of income for the state.

  6. I just looked up traffic accident rates. (In Wikipedia, sadly, so if anyone has better data please write in). It claimed, “In the United States, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle-miles travelled dropped 16% between 1995 and 2005, and the injury rate decreased 37% over the same period.”

    During this same period, cell phone use around the country increased dramatically. So unless we assume that all other factors involved in accidents improved enormously, offsetting the harm caused by increased cell phone use, something is wrong with the statistical analysis.

  7. Bill H says:

    I think the real commentary here is how little we care about how our behavior impacts those around us. I don’t think this is limited to the US, as people I talk with who travel abroad notice the same thing everywhere. Speeding, talking on cellphones, and the like put not just us at risk but everyone nearby and we don’t care. Talking on a cell in a restaurant disturbs others, we don’t care.

    I notice in when I’m riding with others driving that what appears rude, cutting others off, weaving in and out, following too close, is often not deliberately rude but more just an unawareness of the effect of the action or even that the other traffic is even present.

  8. Herb says:

    Here’s my bright idea that almost no one will implement (I’m not even sure I support it fully) but will guarantee no one uses a cell phone while they’re driving:

    Require auto-manufacturers to install cell-phone blocking equipment into every vehicle.

    Too drastic? Perhaps…but it’s no more drastic than a ban. Besides, this approach gets rid of the enforcement problem. (I certainly don’t want to be pulled over because some cop thought he saw me talking on a phone.) The question then becomes…

    Is this even necessary?

  9. sam says:

    Hmmm. Next poll up: Drivers’ attitudes towards texting while driving — “Hey, I can text and drive ok, it’s those other guys I’m worried about.”

  10. sam says:

    I should’ve added that I don’t believe the last part of this:

    A quarter of drivers with cell phones report using them to send or receive text messages while driving, although a large majority (74%) does not.

  11. James Joyner says:

    I don’t believe the last part of this

    I’m guessing a sizable portion of cell users don’t text, period. I skipped straight over texting to checking/sending emails on my BlackBerry. I sometimes respond to messages from behind the wheel but always wait for a red light.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    I think this is a fairly nihilistic analysis by Andrew Malcom. Because something is not 100% effective, does not mean that it doesn’t have effects.

    People still drive without their seat-belts, drink, speed, etc. Do we get rid of these laws? Does the existence of these laws reduce the number and severity of the violations? Are people more cautious when violating these laws? If we revoked the cell phone ban, would more people drive while talking on the cell phone?

  13. sam says:

    I’m guessing a sizable portion of cell users don’t text, period.

    I agree. I was just being cynical. I do see folks texting while driving, but not nearly as many as just talking. Enough to give me the willies, though (where talking on the cell just irritates me). (But, then, I’ve seen women putting on eyeliner or mascara while driving, and guys shaving, reading the paper, so….)

  14. PD Shaw says:

    newch: the study recognizes that cell phone usage increased, while driving fatalities have decreased over a 30 year stretch. They appear to have relied upon reports from emergency service personnel in Los Angeles and Springfield, Mass.

    In turn I wonder if this information was originally self-reported following an accident. At the time of the study, these types of laws were just being considered. I wonder if today a similar analysis would show far fewer accidents related to cell phone use since the driver has reason to be concerned of receiving a traffic ticket and an increase in insurance premiums.

    Study PDF

  15. Ugh says:

    in my experience, a number approaching 100%


  16. Furhead says:

    Someday our cars will drive themselves, but that’s a ways off.

  17. just me says:

    I generally avoid using my cell phone while actively driving. If I am in the car with my kids and have to make a phone call that can’t wait, I will have one of the older kids make the call and deliver the message.

    I know several people that text while driving-I can’t even text while standing still and focusing on nothing but the phone.

  18. John Burgess says:

    You want to stop cell phone use while driving? Easy!

    First, you make using a cell phone while driving a primary offense, i.e., the cop can pull you over for that alone. This is not the case at present in most jurisdictions that outlaw cell phone use while driving.

    Second, impose a minimum fine of $1K for the first offense. Daddy will certainly make sure the young son or daughter gets the message thoroughly.

    Third, a $2K fine, 30 days in jail, and the seizure of the vehicle for a second offense.

    I realize I’m reacting from personal experience, but 9/10 times I have to slam on my brakes, it’s because some idiot is more focused on his/her call than the road.

    You know, it’s just a fact: You cannot do a safe U-turn on a busy street with a phone in one hand. It takes something more than a 2×4 to get that message through to some, apparently.

    I’ve been using cell phones for close to 20 years now. After the very first attempt to use a phone while driving, I realized how utterly unsafe it was. I’ll pull over to use the phone, every time now. If I’m with another person, I might have that person take a call, if it’s sure to be business related–i.e., trying to catch up to a moving target. Otherwise, it can wait for a couple of minutes.

  19. another matt says:

    I realize I’m reacting from personal experience, but 9/10 times I have to slam on my brakes, it’s because some idiot is more focused on his/her call than the road.

    I realize I’m reacting from personal experience, but 9/10 times you have to slam on your breaks because you are probably one of those idiot drivers who follows too closely to the car in front of him.

    Sorry, no real animosity present…I just couldn’t resist the jab.

  20. John Burgess says:

    In this case, you would be wrong!

    Not only do I happen to be a pretty good driver, but I live in an area where people don’t tailgate. Even at stop lights, drivers leave a good half-car length between cars.

  21. Betty Smith says:

    You want to stop cell phone use while driving, and say you cant, look at the laws in Europe, they are extensive and can be EXPENSIVE(that’s the deterrent). I lived in Germany from 2002-2007, and they don’t play. I think we don’t do anything about it here because people make money off of cell phone use and they don’t want things changed~~money hungry.
    How many young, naive teenagers do we have to loose before we get serious about this. You think it is not serious, have you driven near a high school or college lately, you need bumper pads on your car!!!!!!!!