Using Cell Phones While Driving is as Bad as Drunk Driving

Motorists talking on cell phones drive as badly as if they were drunk. Find out why you should put the cell phone away and focus on the road when driving.

man texting and driving

Driving with Distractions Costs Lives

Distracted driving causes fatalities every single day in America. However, how many lives are lost each year, and the role of cell phones remain relatively unknown. That said, plenty of data shows that motorists are safer when they focus on driving instead of other things.

However, the numbers that do exist are worrying. These statistics show the consequences of being distracted while driving:

  • According to Distraction.gov, in 2012 alone over 3,300 people were killed from crashes related to distracted driving. 421,000 people were estimated to have been injured from distracted driving related crashes in the same year.
  • In crashes that were fatal to drivers under the age of 20, 10 percent of the drivers were revealed to have been distracted at the time of impact.
  • Drivers between the ages of 20 and 29 made up the highest portion of distracted drivers that caused fatal crashes, at 27 percent.
  • In a given day, an estimated 660,000 drivers will be using their cell phones or a similar electronic device while driving.
  • Texting or using a mobile device while driving is estimated to divert your attention for five seconds at a time. If you're travelling 55 mph, five seconds is enough time to drive the length of an entire football field.

Because of these concerns, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that "using a mobile phone while driving [should] be defined in legal terms as an activity on par with the effects of tiredness or alcohol." In other words, alcohol, sleep deprivation, and cell phones all have an equally negative impact on a person’s ability to drive safely. Whether or not you drive distracted, getting hit by a distracted driver could cause your car insurance rates to skyrocket. If this has happened to you, compare car insurance quotes to see if you can lower your rates.

Hands Free Doesn’t Mean Risk Free

The rise of voice command technology, voice to text features, and systems that read your texts or emails aloud have lulled many drivers into a false sense of security. Because you don’t have to take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, using these features shouldn’t be as dangerous as directly engaging with your device.

Unfortunately, this is demonstrably false. Several recent studies have established that features such as these are just as distracting as using a cell phone with your hands, and taking your eyes off of the road. The fact that drivers are having a conversation at all distracts them enough to make their reaction time slower and overall awareness at the wheel dramatically lower.

What’s more, the cognitive load created by using hands free technology often engages users mentally at a higher level than manual cell phone usage. Add the fact that much of this technology is not 100 percent reliable, and you have drivers becoming frustrated or confused while trying to use features like voice to text, distracting them further. With their mind on their call or text, they are likely to make driving mistakes, or react slower to sudden dangers.

Hands Free Worse Than Hands On

Voice command technology, voice-to-text, and systems that read your texts or emails aloud have lulled many drivers into a false sense of security. Because you don’t have to take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, using these features shouldn’t be as dangerous, right?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Several recent studies have shown that features such as these are just as distracting as using a cell phone with your hands and not looking at the road. Having a conversation at all distracts drivers enough to make their reaction time slower and reduce their overall awareness at the wheel.

What’s more, the cognitive load created by using hands-free technology often engages users mentally at a higher level than manual cell phone usage. And, as technology can be unreliable, drivers become frustrated or confused while trying to use hands-free features, distracting them more. With their mind on their phone, they are likely to make driving mistakes and react slower to sudden dangers.

AAA released a study that confirmed that many hands-free features are just as dangerous as normal calling or texting. They concluded this because, “as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them including stop signs and pedestrians.”

Making such a mistake could easily result in criminal charges against the distracted driver. Worse, it could cost someone their life.

Using devices such as mounted cameras inside of cars and EEG brain activity monitoring, the study measured a series of subjects as they drove and sometimes attempted to use the aforementioned types of hands-free technology.

They found that activities such as having a conversation and listening to loud music were a minimal distraction. But, talking on a cell phone created even slower response times. Using features such as voice-activated email and voice-to-text required so much focus that drivers were even more distracted than during a typical hand-held cell phone conversation.

Peter Kissinger, AAA’s president and CEO, said that the “increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.” This effect can cause mistakes that have fatal consequences for distracted drivers. These outcomes are as perilous for other cars and pedestrians alike.

Texas A&M conducted a similar study with almost identical conclusions. They found voice-operated texting while driving is just as dangerous as texting by hand.

Despite these findings, the popularity of hands-free features continues to increase. More and more new cars boast “infotainment” systems that connect smart phones to the car’s speakers.

They effectively place distracting voice emails and hands-free texts between the driver and the road.

The Evidence Continues

Another study from the University of Utah compared the effects of phone use, hands-free phone use, and drunk driving. They found that drivers talking on a hand-held cell phone were just as distracted as drivers using hands-free technology. Compared to drivers who weren't distracted, the effect was:

  • An overall slower driving speed
  • 9 percent reduction in braking reaction times
  • A 24 percent variation in following distance as they tuned in and out of their conversations and their driving focus
  • A return to normal speed from braking that was 19 percent slower
  • Three of the test subjects rear ended the pace car during the study while talking on a cell phone

Drivers with a Blood Alcohol Content of .08 percent and not using cell phones took the same test. The researchers found that drunk drivers were more aggressive with braking and following speed. But, there was no significant difference between their overall performance and that of the distracted drivers. Worst of all, none of the drunk drivers rear-ended the pace car, but several cell phone users did.

Speaking on behalf of the study, Dr. Frank Drews stated that “this study does not mean people should start driving drunk.” Instead, “it means that driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as or maybe worse than driving drunk, which is completely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by society.”

States with Laws Banning Cell Phone Use in Cars

The dangers of cell phone used have prompted legislative action from several states. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, the following states and regions completely ban hand-held cell phone use:

Many other states, like Louisiana, ban cell phone use for new drivers during their first year of driving. Most states also have restrictions on government-owned vehicles like school buses. And many US cities have banned cell phone use while driving within that city.

A total of 44 states have been compelled to ban texting while driving. Some states have even started using a device called a Textalyzer, which can inform police if a driver is using their phone while driving. Some of these states will impose criminal charges if you get in an accident because you were texting and driving. Violators could face fines, community service, or even jail time.

Sound Advice: Hang Up and Drive

Talking on a cell phone distracts motorists as much as having a blood alcohol level of .08 percent, yet it's still shockingly common. Some studies report that as many as 10 percent of drivers on the road are using their phones at any given moment.

In light of all this, the dangers of using a cell phone while driving, even hands-free, are all too clear. You should recognize them, as most states already do.

If your state hasn’t yet banned cell phones while driving, it's likely that it will in the near future. What’s more, the research about hands-free systems may prompt states to criminalize their use while driving. Being charged with distracted driving can raise your rates.

The bottom line: Hang up now—don't use a phone to talk or text while driving. you might just be saving someone’s life.

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