Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws making texting while driving illegal, and seven states and D.C. have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Many safety groups have urged a nationwide ban on texting and on using handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel.

Researchers grappled with the question of whether using a hands-free device was safer than using a handheld phone behind the wheel. One researcher cautioned that hands-free devices could still cause distractions if the driver needed to dial the phone or handle the device.

“I think it’s important that we recognize that hands-free is not risk-free,” said John Lee, a University of Wisconsin researcher.

Others said laws banning handheld cell phone use by drivers would be easier to enforce and warned that total bans could preclude technologies such as General Motors’ OnStar, an in-vehicle system that alerts emergency rescue officials to a crash.

“You have to be really careful about unintended consequences of just saying we need a complete, total cell phone ban,” said Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Family members of victims called for a complete ban by drivers and suggested technologies that prevent mobile devices from receiving eMails or phone calls while the vehicle is in motion could address the problem.

“This isn’t just a small problem. This is an epidemic,” said Jennifer Smith of Grapevine, Texas. Her 61-year-old mother was killed last year in Oklahoma City by a young driver talking on a cell phone.

In July, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater. Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased risk of collision about six times in cars and trucks. A separate report by Car and Driver magazine found that texting and driving is more dangerous than drunken driving. (See “Tests reveal dangers of texting while driving.”)

The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety officials, recently reversed course and said it would support new laws banning texting behind the wheel. The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 11 automakers, including General Motors, Ford, and Toyota, said it supports a ban on texting and phone calls using handheld devices.

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, also supports a ban on texting while driving but has argued that education and enforcement are critical to changing driver behavior. CTIA and the National Safety Council announced plans for public service announcements warning teen drivers of the dangers of distracted driving.

Links:

Distracted Driving Summit

State laws on cell phones and driving


Add your opinion to the discussion.