Making it illegal to use a phone behind the wheel is a hot topic in state legislatures across the country. So far, New York has taken the boldest action, becoming the first state to make it illegal to operate a vehicle while using a hand-held phone. The ban took effect in November 2001. It's not clear how it will influence safety because so much is unknown about the crash risks associated with cell phone use, particularly whether substituting hands-free phones will reduce the risks compared with hand-held phones.
What's clear is that there's got to be compliance for this law to have any effect. So a big question is, do cell phone laws actually induce drivers to give up using their hand-held phones? The answer is yes, at least in the short term. A new Institute study involved observing drivers in various places across the state before and after New York's law. Three months after the law took effect, the proportion of observed drivers using hand-held phones had dropped by about 50 percent.
To measure rates of cell phone use, researchers observed drivers at intersections over a period of about an hour at a time. In the first set of observations, conducted one month before the law took effect and before police started issuing warnings, 2.3 percent of the drivers were using hand-held phones. Shortly after the warning period ended, the use rate was lower (1.1 percent). Several months later, use was still at 1.1 percent. In neighboring Connecticut, where no law was in effect during the study period, the use of hand-held phones while driving remained steady at 2.9 percent of drivers.
"The results suggest that laws like New York's can significantly reduce hand-held phone use by drivers," says Anne McCartt, senior associate at Preusser Research Group and lead author of the study. "The changes in hand-held phone use occurred at a time when the new law was getting considerable publicity. It will be interesting to see if the changes can be maintained and increased over the long term. Enforcement is likely to be key."
The observations were conducted in four small- to medium-size metropolitan areas in New York and two areas in Connecticut. A few downstate counties in New York including Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester had preexisting bans on driving while talking on cell phones, and these counties weren't included in the Institute's surveys. About 37,000 vehicles in New York and another 21,000 vehicles in Connecticut were observed over the three separate periods when researchers were conducting their observations.
A question that remains is whether New York's cell phone law goes far enough. What about hands-free phones? "It might be a mistake to think that safety will be served as long as drivers keep both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel. There's some evidence that talking on a hands-free phone is a significant driver distraction," McCartt says.
It's hard to pin down the risk of handheld or hands-free phones because so much still is unknown, no matter what kind of phone a driver is using.
The Institute's study is believed to be the first evaluation of driver compliance with a law prohibiting hand-held cell phone use. The law in New York makes it a traffic violation, punishable by a fine of $100, for a driver to hold a cell phone to or near the ear while a vehicle is in motion, unless the driver is calling for help or reporting a dangerous situation.
The law doesn't apply to hands-free phones. Nor does it prohibit manual dialing or using hand-held phones while vehicles are stopped, such as at traffic lights.
Under a phased-in approach, police dispensed verbal warnings to violators during November 2001, which was the first month of the New York law. For the next three months (December-February), violators received citations, but judges could waive the fines for first offenses if drivers showed proof of having purchased a headset or a speakerphone. Beginning in March 2002, the fines no longer were waived.
New York is the only U.S. state with such a law, but the volume of legislative proposals is picking up. More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have considered full or partial bans on using cell phones while driving. Legislators in a few states have sought to ban any distracted behavior while driving.
Distractions besides phone use
Phoning while driving is getting a lot of attention these days, perhaps because cell phone use has become one of the more common driver distractions. But it's not the only one. Nor is the problem of distraction new. This crash occurred on June 7, 1988. It involved Peter Hanlon, who was driving a flower delivery van on the New York Thruway when he says he "dropped a cassette. I decided it would be a good time to bend over and pick it up, except it wasn't [a good time] because I moved over on the road a little bit to the right-hand side. I was driving half on the road and half on the shoulder, and I collided with a tractor-trailer." Fortunately, Hanlon had fastened his safety belt moments before. Thruway authorities were in the second month of a program to publicize and enforce New York's belt law (see "Nine out of ten NY Thruway drivers buckle up during belt use program," Sept. 17, 1988), and a tolltaker had just reminded Hanlon to buckle up.