Death By Cell Phone

By Eddie Wren


Most people — certainly business people — would agree that cell phones have revolutionized our way of life by adding convenience, swift responses and an ability to continue working uninterrupted by travel time. But the sad fact — despite the protests from all those who don’t wish to have their new-found convenience limited — is that cell phones, when used by drivers, have also revolutionized one of our ways of death, too. This is why some U.S. states, such as New York, have already made it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving.


A study commissioned by a leading UK insurance company, Direct Line (2003), revealed that talking on any cell phone while driving is so mentally distracting that it is as dangerous as driving when slightly over the legal blood-alcohol limit. (In Britain, the BAC limit is 0.08%, the same as in the U.S.A.) Despite these results applying to hands-free phones as well as hand-held ones, Direct Line drew a line by suggesting that the findings should be used to bring about a total ban on the use only of hand-held cell  phones while driving, but in purely safety terms that was a climb-down by a company that did not wish to aggravate potential clients by supporting an all-out ban.


By mid 2004, American bodies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) were rightly starting to challenge the wisdom of approving the use even of hands-free cell phones while driving.

Direct Line commissioned their study from the world-renowned Transport Research Laboratory after a survey revealed that 40% of drivers in Britain (i.e. about 10 million motorists) use a cell phone while driving. Even though most of those drivers realized that using a cell phone is distracting, they did not think it to be as dangerous as drinking and driving. Direct Line commissioned the research in order to quantify the risks.

The study was carried out over three months, after which a panel of volunteers was tested on a sophisticated driving simulator. The level of driving impairment was tested for the three relevant driving situations:  talking on a hand-held cell phone, talking on a hands-free phone, and driving when slightly over the legal blood-alcohol limit. The result was that the drivers’ reaction times were thirty percentworse when they were talking on cell phones than when they were borderline intoxicated. Compared to normal driving conditions, drivers talking on the hand-held phone were fifty percent impaired. Two of the most visible problems that resulted from this impairment were an inability to maintain a constant speed and an inability to remain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead.

Drivers in the study later admitted that they had actually found it easier to drive while intoxicated (just over the legal limit) than when using a cell phone, whether it was hand-held or hands-free. Drivers using cell phones also missed many more road signs than did the drunk drivers. It should go without saying that hand-held cell phones proved to be even more distracting than hands-free units. Drivers using hand-held cell phones took about half a second longer to react than a driver under normal circumstances, and this was also longer than those who were mildly drunk. In real-life terms, this means for example that at 70 mph a driver on a cell phone would travel an extra 46 feet before even reacting to a danger on the road. And that, in many, many cases, has already proved to be the difference between life and death.

For those who are still skeptical about cell phones being dangerous when used by drivers, please click on Kimberly and Kathy Seager.