Into the Weeds on Safety and Cell Phones

Recently state representatives Mark Uglem and Frank Hornstein introduced a bill to the Minnesota Legislature to criminalize talking on a handheld cell phone while driving. The benefits of this bill are sold to be increased safety, particularly from having two hands ready and on the wheel at all times, and easier enforcement of the texting and driving law (no longer will calling your friend be your excuse for taking your eyes off the road). The first reason given is murky on research at best, and the following post is intended to clarify why this bill should be amended, edited or entirely rewritten to further increase safety and criminalize dangerous driving behaviors. I will try and bring the academic literature on this issue and discuss it here, hopefully to try and improve the bill and better understanding of traffic safety in Minnesota.

If you wish to go into the weeds and out of the weeds and home before dark, the short answer is as follows; Minnesota should ban all cell phone use while driving. It is dangerous. Hands-free devices do not increase safety over handheld devices.

The first study I wish to discuss comes from the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA study reads [in part] that over 50% of hands-free cell phone calls (be it through the vehicle or through a bluetooth device such as an earpiece) included drivers browsing, dialing, texting, or otherwise using handheld phones’ screens and taking their eyes off the road, and these voicecalls took longer than on handheld devices. This is important because talking on a cell phone, even a handheld cell phone, by itself, was not seen as decreasing driver performance, and attention to forward traffic was actually increased with speaking on a handheld device as opposed to hands-free devices and even no cell phone use. The biggest danger of cell phones is from texting, browsing the internet and taking our eyes off the road. These tasks were more common with hands-free devices (it is posited this is) because you didn’t have to use speaker phone, or miss a portion of the conversation to take your eyes off the road. This does NOT mean that if you are not texting or browsing or otherwise using your device, it is definitely safer to use a handheld device (particularly if you receive many calls, as answering a call on a hands-free device was easier), but the task of talking on hands-free and handheld devices were not seen as different when it was just talking. {1}

Studies done at the University of Utah concerning cell phone use and driver performance in a driving simulator. Found some mixed results comparing cell phone use to conversing with a passenger, but overall found that hands-free cell phone use decreases control over lane position, decreases navigational awareness, and that drivers increase their following distance while on a hands-free cell phone device {2}.   A previous study by the same university found that dangerous behaviors increased while driving on a cell phone, and that this effect was equal for hands-free and handheld devices {3}. A study from the University of Cincinnati reads “We did not find any difference in control… between drivers using the phone for speech and those in the control condition” although braking was delayed with any and all cell phone use {4}. This research continues to show that distracted driving from cell phone use (even hands-free cell phone use) is more dangerous than driving distraction free.

The biggest benefit I have been able to find thus far for a new law banning handheld cell phone use while driving is that it makes enforcement of texting and driving easier. While I understand the concern of law enforcement, it seems that if this has presented itself as an issue, we must start some sort of conversation and warrant program for distracted driving. Already we have implied consent rules for drinking and driving, if you are suspected of driving drunk you must submit to a breathalyzer test. It seems that if we want to be able to prove texting and driving, we should consider requiring cell phones record and report their operations when required to by law enforcement. Faculty at the College of William and Mary’s law school have attempted to find a decent middle ground, protecting privacy rights of individuals and discouraging texting and driving with a paper titled “Texting and Driving Meets the Fourth Amendment“. The idea is that texting and driving is treated as a minor crime in most states, and to deter texting and driving, harsher penalties need to be associated with the task (large fines, revocation of drivers license, jail time, and/or an ignition interlock which only will allow the car to run if a cell phone is plugged in and disabled… also preventions). That said, to avoid unreasonable searches, a lower punishment should be set for those who confess to texting and driving, whereas a conviction should come with a higher punishment {5}. There are still concerns over this approach, allowing for more searches and providing incentive for confessions seems illegal (addressed in the article, but I’m not a lawyer), but if the concern is solely public safety and catching texting drivers, there are alternative solutions to the issue than banning only handheld devices.

Overall, Tom Vanderbilt author of Traffic, Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What it Says About Us) holds a similar opinion to my own at this time, and after this research. He wrote for a 2009 New York Times blog;

All in all, considering the evidence, as much as I dislike a blanket ban, the alternative seems worse to me. I say, ban the use of cellphones, hand-held and hands-free.

The fact is, we suck at driving with distraction. Handheld devices are bad, hands-free devices are bad, texting is atrocious, so why are we stopping the proposed ban at handheld devices? To increase safety, we need to make sure everyone is attentive to the task at hand, and this includes banning handheld AND hands-free use.

I have emailed early versions of this to both representatives for comment, they did not respond.

Academic Bibliography

{1} Fitch, G. A., Soccolich, S. A., Guo, F., McClafferty, J., Fang, Y., Olson, R. L., Perez, M. A., Hanowski, R. J., Hankey, J. M., & Dingus, T. A. (2013, April). The impact of hand-held and hands-free cell phone use on driving performance and safety-critical event risk. (Report No. DOT HS 811 757). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

{2} Drews, F. A., M. Pasupathi, and D. L. Strayer. Passenger and cell phone conversations in simulated driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2008, pp. 392–400.

{3} Strayer, D. L., F. A. Drews, and D. J. Crouch. A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2006, pp. 381–391.

{4} Neubauer, C., G. Matthews, and D. Saxby. The Effects of Cell Phone Use and Automation on Driver Performance and Subjective State in Simulated Driving. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, Vol. 56, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1987–1991.

{5} Gershowitz, Adam M., “Texting While Driving Meets the Fourth Amendment: Deterring Both Texting and Warrantless Cell Phone Searches” (2012). Faculty Publications. Paper 1280.

Other academic resources considered but not included in this post

  • Mccartt, A. T., L. A. Hellinga, L. M. Strouse, and C. M. Farmer. Long-Term Effects of Handheld Cell Phone Laws on Driver Handheld Cell Phone Use. Traffic Injury Prevention, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2010, pp. 133–141.

This was to answer the question ‘Do Bans Work?’ The short answer is, possibly.

Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.

21 thoughts on “Into the Weeds on Safety and Cell Phones

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    This is a bold proposal, Joe. I think it’s well-justified, although I’m not totally convinced. A slightly less extreme measure might be to mimic California’s current law, which is to ban touching a cell phone while driving. The current bill doesn’t go far enough in that it only prohibits “electronic messages” — you could still hold and look at your phone to load maps cached to your device, for example.

    I am deeply concerned, however, about the idea you reference to penalize drivers who do not wish to have their phone searched. There are any number of legitimate privacy reasons why someone would not wish to have police pawing through a device that contains their most personal information. I realize the intent of the authors is to minimize an already-legal practice of searching cell phones without a warrant. However, this overlooks the fact that most cell phones are fully encrypted, and that a fingerprint requires a warrant, and it is not considered constitutional to require a passcode to be disclosed at all. I think this makes the idea of inspecting phones in traffic stops impractical.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

        I would agree, actually. The article itself calls out ways to do this which still protect 4th amendment rights, and I, not being a lawyer, cannot adequately discuss the implications or constitutionality of said laws.

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

          (Also to clarify, the idea in the article was to have lesser penalties for confessions, as accessing cell phones records to know if you were messing with it is time intensive and intrusive. The issue isn’t illegal searches, but if this is coercing confessions.)

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Do any of these studies use voice controls for making handsfree calls?

    But yes, we should ban using a phone while driving, period.

    Unfortunately, our culture views driving time as downtime that should be taken up with whatever distraction we can think of.

  3. James WardenJames Warden

    One of the bright spots is that Minnesota companies are starting to take this seriously on their. Cargill, my employer, has banned all cell use in vehicles while on company business — even when using a hands-free device. Woe to the employee caught taking a conference call while driving! EcoLab, another big Minnesota company, also has a ban. In all, the National Safety Council estimates that 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies have rules like this.

    1. Rosa

      this is great, partly because the pressure to answer work-related calls while driving can be so intense. Having a rule against it makes it a lot easier for employees to choose not to answer while driving.

  4. Erick

    If a driver is so self-centered and inconsiderate that they use a cell phone, I would actually prefer that they use a conventional one. That way I have a chance of knowing they are distracted and might be able to stay out of their way. Maybe what we need is to require flashing warning lights whenever a cellphone is in use!

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      Can you provide further context?

      I didn’t do a wonderful job summarizing their paper based on people’s responses (I think the amendment most in jeopardy from their paper is the 5th, not the 4th), it’s linked in the article and I believe is open access. Can you provide improvements to their ideas?

  5. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    Either confess to using a cell phone while driving or submit to a search of your phone?–that rubs me the wrong way. I fully support a cell phone ban while driving. I get that cell phone use can be extremely difficult to prove and that this can be another tool for law enforcement.

    But very often searching a cell phone is inconclusive about whether or not it was in use at the time, even if it was. People do all sorts of activities that don’t necessarily leave an obvious record.

    Maybe the public would be better served with modeling cell phone regulations on a different aspect of alcohol law in many states: requiring alcohol in the vehicle to be sealed and stored in a place unreachable by the driver. Perhaps require the driver’s phone to be safely stored while the ignition is on.

  6. OldLawProf

    I ride a bicycle. I cannot count the number of times that I had to take evasive action because a driver was so involved in discussing what’s for supper that they ignored my presence completely. A accident avoided, by the cyclist for example, is a statistical nullity. B. S.!

    No one needs to use a cellphone while driving. Cargill is right. Minnesota should follow their lead.

  7. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Good article Joe.

    Another option is to focus on the result we want – drivers paying closer attention and staying where they are supposed to be and when – rather than one of several causes.

    Minnesota’s ‘Curb Reaction Distance’ is an open invitation to drivers to not pay attention and encourages it. What we need instead are curbs themselves – that present imminent danger to drivers tires and rims. Just watch how carefully people drive through a narrow drive-thru. Drivers don’t think the probability of their hitting someone in another car, riding a bicycle, or walking is very likely but damage to their car feels much more imminent.

    Narrower travel lanes, especially if they’re squeezed between parked vehicles on one side and opposing traffic or a narrow center turn lane on the other helps force attention as well.

    Cement enforces better than rules. 🙂

  8. GlowBoy

    I completely agree that handsfree use of a cellphone is NOT safer than handheld use.

    However, I still support a handheld ban. Not because it makes people switch to handsfree devices (the revenue of which sales kept the cell industry from opposing it too much), but because it gives police a powerful enforcement tool against the *real* menace: texting and otherwise interacting with phone screens while driving.

    Having recently moved from Oregon (where, like California and Washington, handhelds have been illegal for drivers for several years now), I can tell you the difference is night and day. The brazenness with which Minnesota drivers fiddle with their phones while driving blows my mind. Not saying it doesn’t happen in Oregon, but it is much more surreptitious and much less common.

    It’s really hard for police to prove you’ve been texting. It’s really easy for them to prove you were using a handheld. Making this illegal has made a big difference, and I’m all for it.

  9. GlowBoy

    By the way, I’m not too worried about 4th Amendment issues. You sacrifice some of your rights when you invoke the privilege of driving an automobile.

    Like every state, Minnesota has an implied consent law mandating that all drivers be willing to subject themselves to a *bodily* search if there’s probable cause to suspect they are impaired by intoxicants.

    I don’t think we’re further eroding Constitutional protections if we mandate that all drivers be willing to submit their telephones for a search of their recent usage history if there’s probable cause to suspect they’ve been using it while driving.

    I say this as one of the strongest civil libertarians around: I’ve been appalled at the erosion of our First Amendment rights by each administration since the Clinton, I very much miss Oregon’s free-speech protections (which go far beyond those in the federal Constitution), and I recognize that the Bill of Rights is not a comprehensive list, but a Greatest Hits list – remembering that Jefferson supported the creation of Bill of Rights only after the Ninth Amendment was included to emphasize this. This is why so-called “Strict Constructionism” galls me – the idea that our Creator-given rights should be limited by this document is in fact anathema to the Founders’ intent. I am concerned about many intrusions on our rights by government and business, but this is not one of them. Driving is not a right. I have to submit to searches when entering planes and at times other mass transit vehicles, while drivers are exempt. I’d go so far as to say this violates the Equal Protection clause.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I think it’s an unreasonable comparison to liken the implied consent for alcohol and drug testing to a search of your cell phone. The worst that you can discover from a breathalyzer is that the person is drunk. If the worst that you could discover by searching somebody’s phone is that they were texting, that would be equivalent.

      Instead, police might discover:
      -Information about undocumented immigrants’ location or status
      -Communication about buying or selling drugs
      -Illegal pornography (some prosecutors are already charging teenagers for possessing nude images of themselves)
      -Copyrighted material that was unlawfully copied
      -Information about an illegal business venture

      I’m not endorsing any of these particular activities, but we should not subject any citizen who might be using their phone for texting to a search that could reveal participation in any of these or any others.

      1. GlowBoy

        But these concerns can be overcome. We could work with cellphone OS developers to provide a mode that allows the police to check whether and how the phone has been used over the last couple of minutes while moving – WITHOUT giving them full access to the phone’s contents.

  10. Kyla Ware

    This is kind of a tangent, but whenever this issue comes up I always think about how distracting those digital LED billboards along the freeways are. They move and change, and flash. Even regular billboards can be distracting, but particularly if they have dense and/or small text.

    MNDOT told me they have no control over those LED billboards, it’s the cities. Some cities don’t allow them, but some do because they generate revenue, which is of course more important than safety.

    Seems to me there are many things that could be done that would be more concrete than strict cell phone laws (some literally concrete, like @WalterAngell’s curbs).

    Thanks to all who are putting so much thought into this!

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