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Text Messaging, Cell Phones and Accidents

Published Jan 17th 2007, 11:35pm by Jody DeVere in Featured Articles

Womanincarwithphone_1 In the United States over 224 million people used cell phones as of October 2006, compared with approximately 4.3 million in 1990, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

Increased reliance on cell phones has led to a rise in the number of people who use the devices while driving. There are two dangers associated with driving and cell-phone use. First, drivers must take their eyes off the road while dialing. Second, people can become so absorbed in their conversations that their ability to concentrate on the act of driving is severely impaired, jeopardizing the safety of vehicle occupants and pedestrians. Since the first law was passed in New York in 2001 banning hand-held cell-phone use while driving, there has been debate as to the exact nature and degree of hazard. The latest research shows that while using a cell phone when driving may not be the most dangerous distraction, because it is so prevalent it is by far the most common cause of this type of crash and near crash.

Studies: Studies about cell-phone use while driving have focused on several different aspects of the problem. Some have looked at its prevalence as the leading cause of driver distraction. Others have looked at the different risks associated with hand-held and hands-free devices. Still others have focused on the seriousness of injuries in crashes involving cell-phone users and the demographics of drivers who use cell phones. Below is a summary of some recent research on the issue.

Text messaging, or “texting” by teens, a driving distraction related to cell phone use, was the subject of an August 2006 survey by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. The survey showed that teens considered sending text messages via cell phones to be their biggest distraction. Of the teens surveyed, 37 percent said that text messaging was extremely or very distracting, while 20 percent said that they were distracted by their emotional states and 19 percent said that having friends in the car was distracting.

A study released in April 2006 found that almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds of the event. The study, The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), breaks new ground. (Earlier research found that driver inattention was responsible for 25 to 30 percent of crashes.) The new study found that the most common distraction is the use of cell phones, followed by drowsiness. However, cell-phone use is far less likely to be the cause of a crash or near-miss than other distractions, according to the study.

For example, while reaching for a moving object such as a falling cup increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by 9 times, talking or listening on a hand-held cell phone only increased the risk by 1.3 times. The study tracked the behavior of the 241 drivers of 100 vehicles for more than one year. The drivers were involved in 82 crashes, 761 near crashes and 8,295 critical incidents.

These findings confirm an August 2003 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that concluded that drivers are far less distracted by their cell phones than by other common activities, such as reaching for items on the seat or glove compartment or talking to passengers. That study was based on the analysis of videotapes from cameras installed in the vehicles of 70 drivers in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Texting_in_the_car In December 2005 the NHTSA and the National Center for Statistics and Analysis released the results of their National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), which found that in 2005, 6 percent of drivers used hand-held cell phones, up from 5 percent in 2004. The survey also found that the jump was most noticeable among women (up to 8 percent from 6 percent in 2004) and young drivers ages 16 to 24 (up to 10 percent from 8 percent in 2004). The percentage of men using cell phones rose from 4 to 5 percent over the same period. Finally, the survey found that the number of drivers using headsets rose from 0.4 percent in 2004 to 0.8 percent in 2005. The NOPUS is a probability-based observational survey. Data on driver cell-phone use were collected at random stop signs or stoplights only while vehicles were stopped and only during daylight hours.

Motorists who use cell phones while driving are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to a study of drivers in Perth, Australia, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The results, published in July, 2005, suggest that banning hand-held phone use won't necessarily improve safety if drivers simply switch to hand-free phones. The study found that injury crash risk didn't vary with type of phone.

Many studies have shown that using hand-held cell phones while driving can constitute a hazardous distraction. However, the theory that hands-free sets are safer has been challenged by the findings of several studies. A study from researchers at the University of Utah, published in the summer 2006 issue of Human Factors, the quarterly journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, concludes that talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, even if the phone is a hands-free model. An earlier study by researchers at the university found that motorists who talked on hands-free cell phones were 18 percent slower in braking and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked.

A September 2004 study from the NHTSA found that drivers using hand-free cell phones had to redial calls 40 percent of the time, compared with 18 percent for drivers using hand-held sets, suggesting that hands-free sets may provide drivers with a false sense of ease.

State and Federal Initiatives: In 2006 September California Gov.Schwarzenegger signed a bill (SB 1613) prohibiting people from driving while using a hand-held cell phone. When the law goes into effect in July 2008, California will be the fourth state to have such a ban. The District of Columbia also has such a law in force.

In October 2005 a Connecticut law banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving went into effect. The measure goes further than some similar laws in other states and municipalities. Drivers in Connecticut can be fined $100 not only for using a cell phone, but those pulled over for speeding or other moving violations can be fined for other driving distractions such as putting on makeup or turning to discipline children in the back seat. In January 2004 New Jersey passed a bill prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving and in April of that year the District of Columbia (DC) followed suit. In New Jersey fines range between $100 and $250; in DC fines are $100. New York was the first state to enact such legislation in 2001. Drivers there face fines of $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 thereafter.

The number of state legislatures debating measures that address the problem of cell-phone use while driving and other driver distractions continues to rise. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of November 2006 14 states had passed laws banning or restricting young drivers from using cell phones.

In June 2003 federal and state highway safety agencies issued new guidelines for reporting crashes caused by distracted drivers. The authorities are asking police across the nation to note whether a driver was distracted and the source of the distraction, such as cell phone, radio, passenger, or another vehicle.

Businesses are increasingly prohibiting workers from using cell phones while driving to conduct business. In July 2004, the California Association of Employers recommended that employers develop a cell phone policy that requires employees to pull off the road before conducting business by cell phone.

Judges_gavel Court Decisions: In December 2004 a civil case involving a car crash caused by a driver using a cell phone for business reasons was dismissed when the driver’s employer, Beers Skanska Inc., agreed to pay the plaintiff $5 million. The plaintiff in the case being heard in Georgia’s Fulton County Superior Court was severely injured in the crash. The suit is among the most recent of several cases where an employer has been held liable for an accident caused by a driver using a cell phone. See background section on Employer and Manufacturer Liability.

In mid-October 2004 in the case of Yoon v. Wagner a Virginia jury awarded $2 million in damages to the family of a young girl who was killed by a driver using a cell phone at the time of the accident. The plaintiff also filed a suit against the driver’s employer after it became clear through an examination of phone records that the driver had been talking to a client when she hit the girl.

Cell phones play an integral role in our society. However, the convenience they offer must be judged against the hazards they pose. Inattentive driving accounted for 6.4 percent of crash fatalities in 2003 — the latest data available — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Inattentive driving includes talking, eating, putting on make up and attending to children. Using cell phones and other wireless or electronic units are also considered distractions.

As many as 40 countries may restrict or prohibit the use of cell phones while driving. Countries reported to have laws related to cell phone use include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Botswana, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. Most countries prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving. Drivers in the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom may use cell phones but can be fined if they are involved in crashes while using the phone. Drivers in the United Kingdom and Germany also can lose insurance coverage if they are involved in a crash while talking on the phone.

Supporters of restrictions on driving while using a cell phone say that the distractions associated with cell phone use while driving are far greater than other distractions. Conversations using a cell phone demand greater continuous concentration, which diverts the driver’s eyes from the road and his mind from driving. Opponents of cell phone restrictions say drivers should be educated about the effects of all driver distractions. They also say that existing laws that regulate driving should be more strictly enforced.

Employer and Manufacturer Liability: Although only a handful of high-profile cases have gone to court, employers are still concerned that they might be held liable for accidents caused by their employees while driving and conducting work-related conversations on cell phones. Under the doctrine of vicarious responsibility, employers may be held legally accountable for the negligent acts of employees committed in the course of employment. Employers may also be found negligent if they fail to put in place a policy for the safe use of cell phones. In response, many companies have established cell phone usage policies. Some allow employees to conduct business over the phone as long as they pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot. Others have completely banned the use of all wireless devices.

In an article published in the June 2003 edition of the North Dakota Law Review, attorney Jordan Michael proposed a theory of cell phone manufacturer liability for auto accidents if they fail to warn users of the dangers of driving and talking on the phone at the same time. The theory holds that maker liability would be similar to the liability of employers who encourage or demand cell phone use on the road. Holding manufacturers liable would cover all persons who drive and use cell phones for personal calls. Michael notes that some car rental agencies have already placed warnings on embedded cell phones in their cars.

© Insurance Information Institute, Inc.

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