Report: Hands-Free Cell Phones Equally Dangerous for Drivers

Nearly half of younger drivers admit to text messaging while driving.

by / December 5, 2008

Two-thirds of Americans who use cell phones while driving believe it is safer to talk on a hands-free cell phone than on a hand-held device according to a new study released today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. However, scientific research shows that is simply not the case.

As the number of cell phone subscribers and proportion of drivers using cell phones continues to increase, studies that have analyzed the cell phone records of crash-involved drivers have reported that using a cell phone while driving makes you four times as likely to be involved in a crash.

"Too many Americans are driving with the false sense of security that hands-free devices are somehow safer, which could be a deadly mistake," said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. "Evidence shows that using a hands-free phone while driving impairs your reaction time to critical events and increases your crash risk about the same as if you were using a hand-held phone. Drivers need to be aware of the dangers of distracted driving and pay full attention while they are behind the wheel."

Two recent AAA Foundation surveys of the motoring public have found:

  • Over half of U.S. drivers admit to using a cell phone while driving.
  • In one survey, 53 percent of drivers reported having used a cell phone while driving at least occasionally in the month before they were interviewed; in the other survey, 61 percent said the same.
  • In both surveys, one in six even admitted that they do this regularly.
  • Of those who admitted using their cell phone while driving, 60 percent used a hand-held device and 34 percent used a hands-free phone.
  • One in seven even admitted text messaging while driving in the past 30 days.
  • Young drivers were overwhelmingly more likely than older drivers to text message, and somewhat more likely to talk on cell phones while driving. For example, nearly half of drivers ages 18 to 24 admitted texting while driving at least occasionally, as compared to less than five percent of those ages 45 and older.

Do as I say, not as I do: Despite survey respondents' belief that drivers using cell phones are a serious traffic safety problem, a large portion admit they at least occasionally talk on a cell phone while driving.

While cell phone laws vary from state to state, no state has completely banned all cell phone use by drivers. Hand-held cell phone use by drivers is illegal in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Washington and the District of Columbia. Some states ban all cell phone while driving for particular groups of drivers like teens (18 states and D.C.) or school bus drivers, except in emergency situations (17 states and D.C.). Laws that specifically ban text messaging while driving exist in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington state.

"Given the trouble new teen drivers have managing distractions and making safe driving decisions, AAA encourages all states to enact laws banning teens from using any wireless device while driving," said Kathleen Marvaso, vice president of public affairs for AAA. "Texting while driving poses even greater safety concerns than cell phone use due to the time involved looking away from the road, and should also be made illegal for drivers of all ages. Even if a state does not have a law banning these sorts of distracting activities, drivers should focus on safe driving at all times."

State legislatures and local governments continue to push for more laws to stem this behavior. Hand-held banning bills were considered in 30 states in 2008. Localities with handheld phone bans include: Chicago, Ill.; Brookline, Mass.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Detroit, Mich.; Brooklyn, North Olmstead, and Walton Hills, Ohio; and Conshohocken, Lebanon, and West Conshohocken, Pa. No state or locality has banned all cell phone use for drivers, although bills were considered in six state legislatures in 2008. Legislation that would ban text messaging while driving was considered in 26 states in 2008, with cities including Phoenix, Ariz., Chicago, Ill., and Detroit, Mich. having passed local ordinances outlawing the activity.

"Young drivers face an array of potentially deadly challenges behind the wheel," said Kissinger. "Parents should ensure cell phone use while driving, whether hands-free or not, isn't added to the list of distractions at this critical time for new drivers."