Officials explore link between phones, accidents

Doug Brown's eyebrows furrowed when he was slightly bumped by another driver while en route to downtown Augusta a couple of weeks ago.

 

The cause: a driver distracted while talking on a cell phone.

It was not the first time someone distracted by a cell phone had made his commute a pain.

"It's so annoying when people get on their phones while they're driving," Mr. Brown said. "People should have enough common sense to know when to use it and when not to."

Mr. Brown's common sense theory reflects the sentiment of local, statewide and national law enforcement. Besides the annoyance for other drivers, those who drive and use their cell phones are also considered a danger on the road.

According to a 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, inattentive drivers, which include those on cell phones, account for 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes.

Cars have basically become a second home for drivers on the go, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. With the increasing number of cell phones and other technological advances, such as iPods, BlackBerrys, computers and global positioning systems, there are even more distractions, he said.

"Our vehicles are becoming just another place to check e-mail and catch up on phone calls," Mr. Rader said. "If this continues to happen, we're going to have more crashes involving distractions."

Proving that technology distractions cause wrecks is problematic, Mr. Rader said. Unless self-reported, law enforcement will likely have a hard time determining that the use of GPS, iPods and other devices is a factor in accidents, he said.

Of the potential distractions, cell phones are the most common.

With more than 236 million people subscribing to cell phone service as of May, compared to 4.3 million in 1990, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, it's clear that cell phones have become an essential part of modern life, said Jim Shuler, a spokesman for the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Despite the distraction problems, cell phones have an important role.

"They've helped interrupt crimes, respond to Amber alerts and even been helpful in the golden hour of getting medical help," Mr. Shuler said. "You can't just do a blanket thing where you eliminate all cell phones all the time."

Text messaging is another part of cell phone technology, Mr. Shuler said. Drivers, young and old, are talking or typing on their phones through text messages while driving, but studies still lump cell phone use in with other distractions, Mr. Shuler said.

"Cell phones overshadow, because the length of time you're actually changing a radio station is such a quick thing," Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Richard Weaver said. "Folks are getting on cell phones and having conversations at length."

The sheriff's office does not categorize cell phone use as a cause for a wreck, he said.

Georgia bans only school bus drivers from using cell phones while driving, Mr. Shuler said. Many bills have been proposed in the Georgia Legislature, but none has been passed.

Washington, Utah, California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have all banned the use of speaking on hand-held cell phones, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Few studies have been conducted comparing driving behaviors in these states before and after the laws took effect, said Bob Dallas, the director of the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Until more studies are conducted, many states likely will not ban cell phone use while driving, he said.

Mr. Rader says laws will not solve all the problems with distracted drivers. In 2003, his agency conducted a study of New York drivers a year after a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving was enacted. After a brief decline, New Yorkers returned to their usual habits, he said.

Erin Meeker, of Augusta, said she drives and talks on the phone, but not for longer than five minutes. Using her cell phone likely distracts her as much as adjusting her radio dial.

"I think it is a risk, but it's not the only risk," Ms. Meeker said. "I think they'd have to compare talking on the phone to other things before they made any laws."

Increasingly, states will adopt cell phone bans, but it's still unclear what it will take to drive the message to motorists insistent upon taking their technology on the road, Mr. Rader said.

"People say your car is basically an extension of your living room or your office. That's a real problem," he said. "You can't kill somebody's child while sitting at your office desk, but if you're distracted and driving 50 miles per hour you can."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

CELL PHONE DRIVERS IN THE NEWS

On Feb. 7, WCAX-TV News reported on the story of a Rutland, Vt., man who will spend 30 days in jail for hitting a pedestrian while reaching for his cell phone. Police say Robert Hardina, 68, was trying to pick up his phone when his car veered off Route 103 in Mount Holly, Vt. He struck 34-year-old Daniel Day Gray, of East Wallingford, Vt. Mr. Gray suffered severe, permanent head injuries.

STUDIES ON CELL PHONE DRIVERS

The University of Utah published a study in the April 2006 issue of Human Factors that concluded that talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, even if the phone is a hands-free model. Motorists on hands-free devices braked 18 percent slower and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked.

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 Australian drivers conducted by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2005. The study found that injury crash risk didn't vary with type of phone, i.e. hand-held or hands-free.