Please see also this successor post in which I do come down in favor of the ban.
Next week, the Senate will vote on a proposal to ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving. As a frequent cyclist, I am a “vulnerable road user” and do live in fear of distracted drivers. But I am not sure how I’ll vote yet.
Current law already prohibits texting while driving. Fines start at $100 and go up to $500 for a third offense. Current law allows the use of hand-held phones by adults “as long as 1 hand remains on the steering wheel at all times.” Junior operators (those under 18) are already fully prohibited from using mobile devices while driving.
Under the proposed new law, the following acts would become violations punishable by fines if done by the operator while on an area of the roadway intended for travel (except in emergencies).
- Using a mobile electronic device except in hands-free mode.
- Touching or holding a mobile device “except to activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function.”
- Inputting information by hand into a GPS device.
- Holding a mobile device in “immediate proximity of one’s head” — presumptively a violation, i.e., the police can pull you over if they see the phone near your head.
In a court of law, the words “initiate a feature or function” would probably be read to allow dialing a phone, but the proponents appear to believe that they are prohibiting dialing — this language may need some clarification.
There appear to be conflicting findings on the issue of whether hands-free phones are actually safer than hand-held phones. It does stand to reason that dialing a phone manually is as dangerous as texting, especially if it involves looking up a contact. One federally funded study, completed in 2013, found that the visual/manual tasks associated with hand-held phones were associated with increased risks, but that talking on a phone (hand-held or otherwise) does not, per se, elevate risks.
By contrast, a AAA study released around the same time, found that conversation by phone, whether hands-free or hand-held, degrades driving performance. Also, a finding from the first study was that many hands-free phones require visual-manual tasks to initiate calls, so they can create many of the same risks created by a hand-held phone.
It may be that we should go further and just ban non-emergency calls. It would certainly be conceptually cleaner, given the vagueness of what “hands-free” means. I advocated a full ban in our last go-round on this issue in 2010. The National Transportation Safety Board came out for a full ban in 2011, but no other state has gone so far.
Given that a limited ban targeting hand-helds favors people with the means to acquire better phones, enforcement of it will certainly fall more heavily on communities of poverty and there is the perennial problem of differential enforcement against people of color.
And are we focusing on the right issue? Isn’t it just as dangerous to eat a meatball sub in a suit while driving? There are a lot of ways we let our guard down. Data from the federal Department of Transportation suggest that roughly 10% of fatal crashes involve distraction of some kind, but only 14% of that 10% (i.e., 1.4% of fatalities), involved the use of cell phones. And how many crashes have been avoided because someone had successfully put an address into a navigation system and was following the voice commands rather than fumbling with a map?
Finally, the law will remain difficult to enforce. People will learn to use the speaker phone and keep their hands below the window line. Ironically, dialing covertly, they may run greater risks. I’m not sure it is wise to add more unenforceable laws to the books — the police are already stretched too thin to stop people from running red lights. I haven’t seen before and after studies suggesting that passing laws like this leads to reduced fatalities.
The most important thing may be to continue to remind drivers about the dangers of allowing themselves to be distracted in any way, including driving while fatigued.
Despite these reservations, I remain unsure how I’ll vote. Passing a law like this, flawed as it may be, may be part of the education process that we need and it does stand to reason that it is a good thing to reduce visual-manual interactions with devices while driving.
I’d really like to hear from folks on this one.