Cellphones Can Be a Dangerous Distraction for Drivers, but Passengers May Be Even More Distracting

Studies from the NHTSA and NSC find conversing while driving to be a major risk factor, regardless of whether it's through a cellphone, hands-free device, or in-person.

Print Email

A DMV examiner explains what will happen on the drive test before hitting the road.

Photo by: Albert Herring via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

That distracted driving is danger for motorists and pedestrians alike is undeniable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which define distracted driving as "driving while doing another activity that takes your attention away from driving,"  estimate that every day more than 8 people are killed and 1,161 are injured in the US as a result of distractions.

The CDC states that there are three main categories of distraction–Visual (taking one's eyes off the road), Manual (taking one's hands off the wheel), and Cognitive (taking one's mind off of driving)–and highlights cellphone usage as a particularly dangerous activity as it can encompass all three forms of distraction.

Despite the risks created by using a cellphone while driving, however, a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that phone use (including texting as well as dialing and hanging up the phone) accounted for only about 12% of distraction-related accidents. Though that figure does put cellphones in second place on a list of top distractions examined in the study, it pales in comparison to the top distraction: conversing with passengers. According to the study, nearly 57% of drivers who were distracted by an activity inside their car were found to be speaking to other occupants of their vehicles.

Representatives from a Long Island-based law firm that regularly litigates cases involving car accidents, the Law Office of Cohen & Jaffe, LLP, suggest the discrepancy between phone conversations and in-person conversation in distracted driving could be the result of drivers recognizing that phones themselves are a distraction but not treating conversations as such.

"Whereas cellphone users compensate by holding the phone above the steering wheel or driving more slowly, they make no such allowances while conversing with passengers," the firm suggests. "In fact, the opposite is sometimes true, because some people drive faster when they are angry."

A statement released by the National Safety Council corroborates this viewpoint, citing the act of holding a conversation as a distraction in and of itself, regardless of whether the driver is physically holding a cellphone. The NSC conducted a poll which found that 8 in 10 drivers believed hands-free devices that can be paired with cellphones to be safer to operate while driving than simply holding the phone; however, the NSC also found that over 30 studies on the subject have concluded hands-free devices are actually no safer than handheld phones.

"While many drivers honestly believe they are making the safe choice by using a hands-free device, it’s just not true," said David Teater, senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council. "The problem is the brain does not truly multi-task. Just like you can’t read a book and talk on the phone, you can’t safely operate a vehicle and talk on the phone. With some state laws focusing on handheld bans and carmakers putting hands-free technology in vehicles, no wonder people are confused."

The NSC poll further found that 53 percent of respondents believed hands-free devices to be perfectly safe to use if they are built into vehicles, not recognizing in-dash infotainment systems and navigation assistants as potential distractions for drivers.

[Sources: CDC, Cohen & Jaffe, NSC, NHTSA]