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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 6 | July 16, 2005 Subscribe

Drivers respond to D.C. ban on handheld phones, but effect may fade

The driver of this 1998 Ford Explorer was talking on a hand-held cell phone when he collided with a Cadillac Catera. The Explorer spun across an intersection, struck a curb, and rolled over. The 25-year-old driver suffered fatal head injuries.

Cell phone use is estimated at about 5 percent of drivers on U.S. roads, and use rates are on the rise. Given the risks of phoning while driving, it isn't surprising that some jurisdictions are taking action. The District of Columbia and New Jersey have followed New York State in making it illegal for drivers to talk on hand-held phones.

The D.C. ban took effect in July 2004. To gauge compliance, Institute researchers observed daytime phone use at eight sites across the city before and after the law change, finding positive results. Four months after the ban went into effect, the proportion of drivers using handheld phones declined from 6 percent to 3.5 percent. The decline was consistent among drivers of vehicles registered in D.C. and among commuters from neighboring Maryland and Virginia.

As the 17-year-old driver of this 2000 Kia Sephia tried to negotiate a curve in the road, her cell phone rang. While answering it, she ran off the road and hit a telephone pole.


"In D.C. driver use of hand-held phones was cut in half. This is significant, but we'll have to watch and see what happens in the longer term. Experience in New York indicates the need for publicity and enforcement to keep drivers complying with these laws," says Anne McCartt, Institute vice president for research and lead author of the study.

Fewer New York drivers were observed using hand-held phones after the ban took effect in 2001. But a year later use rates had returned to the same level as before (see "Hand-held cell phone use goes back up in N.Y., despite year-old ban," Aug. 26, 2003).

"The safety benefits of banning hand-held phone use are uncertain," McCartt adds. "In Western Australia it has been illegal since 2001 to use hand-held phones while driving, but we found a substantial proportion of drivers using such phones illegally. We also found elevated crash rates associated with using hands-free phones."

U.S. jurisdictions lag in banning hand-held phones while driving. Only New Jersey, New York, and D.C. have taken this step, while hand-helds are banned in most E.U. countries, all Australian states, and Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Using any kind of phone is banned while driving in Japan, but penalties are assessed only if there's another violation or when a driver poses a danger.

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