Driving to distraction

Cell-phone use in the car is worse than drinking to the legal limit, some say

For Linda Mulkey of Salt Lake City, the sight of drivers using cell phones used to be unremarkable.

No more.

"I want to pull them over and tell then what I've been through in the past year," she said. On March 18, 2007, her 17-year-old daughter and only child, Lauren Mulkey, was killed when the vehicle she was driving was broadsided by a 19-year-old man who allegedly ran a red light while trying to retrieve a number on his handheld cell phone.

"There is no place for cell phones and driving -- it cost my daughter her life," Mulkey said.

Besides cell phones, modern technology has given drivers access to more and more devices, such as GPS navigation systems, MP3 players, PDAs and even TVs. But technology can't give drivers additional attention to expend on those devices. The result can lead to tragedy.

In response, lawmakers across the U.S. have been cracking down on what they see as the chief problem: cell phone use by drivers. But some experts complain (and Mulkey agrees) that the new laws only address one small aspect of the problem of driver distraction caused by technology -- they say that even hands-free phoning is dangerous, along with all the other devices drivers are using.

Automakers, meanwhile, appear content to assume that the new laws do address the problem and are building cars that allow hands-free phoning -- while developing additional technology designed to counter driver distraction.

At last count (according to the Governors Highway Safety Association) five states had enacted statewide bans against driving while using a handheld cell phone. Certain local jurisdictions in other states have also done it. (See interactive map for details.)

Interactive map of U.S. cell phone laws.

See interactive map of state-by-state distracted driver laws.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia restrict cell phone use by novice drivers, and 15 states plus the District of Columbia restrict cell phone use by school bus drivers when passengers are present, except in emergencies. As for texting, two states have banned it while driving, and others are expected to do so. (See interactive map for details.)

But so far, all the laws targeting phoning while driving only outlaw handheld phone use -- implying that hands-free phoning is considered safe. And that's what has some experts up in arms, because while hands-free calling eliminates the distraction of dialing and holding the phone, it doesn't eliminate the distraction of conversing with someone who isn't present.

Many point to experiments conducted by Franks Drews, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Not only did his studies find no difference between the level of distraction caused by hands-free and handheld phone conversations, but they also found that the level of impairment caused by talking on the phone exceeded the impairment caused by having a blood alcohol content of the average legal limit of .08%.

Drews explained that the experiments were done in a simulator with the same subjects driving under three conditions: unimpaired, conversing on the phone, and dosed with vodka to the legal limit.

"People who were intoxicated were showing fewer accidents than those who were talking on the phone," he said. "It is clear that a driver who is talking on the phone is very much impaired, beyond the level that society has determined to be safe. The cognitive activity of participating in the conversation draws your attention from the immediate environment, and you prioritize the conversation task higher than the task of driving."

He calculated that the odds of getting into an accident are four to five times higher if you are talking on a phone than they are if you are unimpaired (and 8.3 times higher if you are texting).

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