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.