Cellphone bans aren’t making the roads any safer

There’s plenty of proof that these laws won’t reduce collisions or improve driver attention

Kayte Deioma/Keystone Press Agency

Winnipeg police enjoyed a big day last month. The first day of the province’s ban on cellphone use while driving netted 109 tickets and nearly $22,000 in fines for local drivers. With this haul, Manitoba joined most of Canada in banning cellphones in the name of road safety. Despite all this popularity, however, there’s plenty of proof that these laws won’t reduce collisions or improve driver attention.

To date, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia have all passed laws forbidding hand-held cellphone use by drivers. Alberta is expected to follow suit this fall with a proposed law that goes even further—outlawing grooming, writing, sketching and reading while driving as well—in order to cut down on distracted driving.

And yet, even considering Alberta’s innovations, these laws are not entirely convincing in their motivation. That’s because hands-free devices, which allow drivers to use voice commands to control their phones, are still perfectly legal in every province that now bans drivers from using hand-held devices. This suggests a phone attached to your visor is somehow less distracting than one you hold in your hand. The evidence does not agree.

A much-cited 2006 academic study from the University of Utah found talking on a cellphone reduced driver attentiveness in many important ways. And “both hand-held and hands-free cellphone conversations impaired driving?.?.?.?there were no significant differences in the impairments caused by these two modes of cellular communication.”

Similarly, a report from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) summarizing the scientific evidence to date observed that there is a “general delay in information processing and degradations in driving performance regardless of mobile phone platform—hand-held or hands-free.” The Insurance Bureau of Canada came to the same conclusion in 2007. And in March, the U.S. National Safety Council said bans on hand-held phones “give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.”

Dialing a phone and having a conversation with a disembodied voice appears to distract a driver’s mind in ways that talking to passengers or listening to the radio does not. Of course, so does hot coffee on your lap.

Then there’s evidence from the real world. Earlier this year, the Highway Loss Data Institute, an organization funded by U.S. insurance firms, compared the collision rates of states with and without cellphone bans. There was no difference. This suggests one of two things. Either cellphone use does not lead to collisions despite all the evidence of its distracting qualities or, as the institute surmises, “drivers in jurisdictions with such bans may be switching to hands-free phones?.?.?.?In this case, crashes wouldn’t go down because the risk is about the same, regardless of whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free.”

If the goal of introducing hand-held cellphone bans is to improve road safety, this effort appears to have failed. In fact, according to the NHTSA, drivers who use hands-free phones tend to talk longer and more frequently while driving because it is less cumbersome. With official bans encouraging drivers to switch exclusively to hands-free devices, the end result could be an overall increase in total cellphone use by drivers. In this way, hand-held cellphone laws might actually be making our roads more dangerous.

Given all this conflicting, and widely available, evidence, why would provinces be so eager to introduce laws singling out hand-held devices? It is certainly easy. And it creates an attractive new revenue stream, as Winnipeggers found out in July. But laws should have a firmer foundation than that.

The most charitable explanation is that governments wish to make a statement about road safety. A ban on the most visible form of cellphone use thus has the appearance of taking action. Unfortunately, the action itself is demonstrably pointless. Whether or not this is good politics, it is bad law-making.

The illogical dichotomy of the current bans may also explain the observed reluctance of many drivers to obey the law. In Whitby, Ont., for instance, local police reported this month that compliance with the cellphone law has been falling throughout the year. Distracted driving may be a problem on our roads.

But so are laws that make no sense.




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Cellphone bans aren’t making the roads any safer

  1. This is a stupid analysis on both sides. I suspect most cell-phone related accidents happen when dialing or answering the phone (i.e. when the driver isn't paying attention to the road). Otherwise, conversations with passengers would be just as dangerous.

    • And what about?:

      "Dialing a phone and having a conversation with a disembodied voice appears to distract a driver's mind in ways that talking to passengers or listening to the radio does not."

    • At least when talking to another passenger, you have 2 more eyes that may see something a lone driver may miss.

    • You don't drive with passengers often, do you?

      Because passengers will often pause in their conversation when the driving is getting a little hairy. I'm not sure the reason, politeness or perhaps self-preservation, I'd guess. In either event, however, it means the driver can focus fully on the road when they need to.

      People on the other end of a cell-phone, however, have no idea what your driving conditions are.

      • Plus you can tune out the radio and passengers when you need to. I imagine talking to co-workers, bosses, and clients requires a lot more attention.

      • I suspect this is where the difference arises.

    • That isn't true, and I'll use myself as an example. I do concentrate more on the telephone conversation than I do with a conversation with a passenger (unless it is an extremely intense conversation with the passenger, anyway, and when someone is spilling their scandalous, intimate secrets or having a relationship-changing argument, I tend to pull over for that). I'm not sure exactly why the cellphone conversation requires more brain matter, but I suspect it has to do with being unable to pick up the non-verbal clues making the words themselves more important.

      You'll all be glad to know I don't use a cell-phone in the car, or I pull over before answering it.

  2. Shorter Maclean's: greedy selfish me-first un-named female editors and writers who wrote this unsigned shriekatorial really, really like gabbing on their cellphones while driving and will go the unusual length of suggesting that it is perfectly safe to do so, even going so far as to label the ban as – get this – "illogical" and – hold on – "hand-held cellphone laws might actually be making our roads more dangerous."

    This is a perfect example of how we need to gender normalize the criminal code. Treat chatting and driving like drinking and driving; criminalize it, throw repeat offenders in jail, and suspend their licenses. 83% of DUI cases are male, a similar percentage of chronic chat n' drivers are women. Fact: there are more accidents caused by cellphone drivers than by drunk drivers. Let's throw these ignorant bitches in jail and give them criminal records and we'll all be safer.

    The gist of this article – one hand on the wheel is safer than two – is, effectively, two plus two equals five. Get serious ladies.

    • I think the upshot is this:

      People shouldn't use cell phones while driving, period. Problem is, it's hard to ban the use of a device when it is not visually obvious when one is used. A better strategy than the ban would be a public awareness/cultural norm campaign like anti-litter and drunk-driving campaigns of yore. If we make the use of a cellphone, hand-free or not, socially unacceptable, we will see less of it. The strategy of encouraging people to use hands-free devices is doomed to failure, because the distraction is not in the holding of the device.

    • you're an idiot. did you even read the article? The article argues that the laws are ineffective because they dont go far enough, not because talking on cellphones is in of itself a safe activity.

  3. Thats funny. Anyone have that study of that small German town that removed all the street signs and improved driver awareness/safety?

    • I don't have the name of the study but I read about it in the book, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do." In it the case is made that road accidents and related injuries and fatalities haven't measurably improved in fifty years of improving the saftey of cars and roads. We have a risk tolerance, and the more risks are removed (i.e. airbags, power steering and brakes, handsfree devices, etc…) the higher the risks we take. Fifty years ago we wouldn't take a curve on a highway at 100km/hr, but today we can – and do – at 120 because the car holds better and the road is banked to help manage it. Best line in the book, 'Want to stop accidents? Put a dagger on the steering wheel pointed at the driver's chest." No one would drive faster than 5km/hr.

        • That's the most laid back guy in history.

          • Wish you could do that in Manitoba lol, at least it'd be something to do opposed to being bitten by mosquitoes and walking on crumby beaches in the summertime.

  4. Please ban billboard ads at every road – all the bright signs are unnecessary and distracting to my driving!

  5. There's probably lobbying going from the telecom companies that don't want hand-free devices to also be banned.

  6. Heck, these laws don't even stop me from talking on my cell phone using my hand.

  7. Let's build a safer world with less distractions. Web or video conference more, don't travel. Ban all passengers, better still ban all vehicles with more than one seat. Ban all automotive electronics and ban all advertising signage visible from any roadway. It might not improve safety but the environment would be a lot less polluted. Option 2: Accept that you can't legislate against stupidity, just charge bad drivers with "undue care and attention" and take their license away.

  8. To heck with telephone distractions in cars…kids and pets should be banned.

    Children should be transported (to and from 100% government funded day care) only in Ministry approved, hermetically sealed transport pods traveling on elevated monorail systems…that is until we perfect Star Trek style transporters of course.

    Our ever increasing laws to eliminate risk in society are futile as they are intrusive and ineffective.

  9. Even with the current prohibition of cell phones, I still see many people talking on their phones while driving. Prohibition without enforcement is useless.

  10. About that "evidence from the real world." The insurance-backed study was deeply flawed. It studied only new or relatively new cars, ruling out half of the vehicles on the road. It also discarded data showing decreases in accidents in states it studied as "part of an overall trend." In other words, crashes were down but the researchers didn't believe it. The results also conflicted with numerous studies with better methodologies that showed clear declines in accidents in states such as California.

    Because hands-free doesn't make the cell phone problem disappear is no reason not to take this first step.

  11. You are all ridiculous coming to conclusions based only on things not happening the way you thought they would.

    There are only 2 facts you need to know to understand why this law isn’t making a difference and how come tougher laws won’t change anything either.

    Fact number 1: Accident statistics across north America showed that 1% of registered vehicle were involved in accidents in 1990.

    Fact number 2: Accident statistics across north America showed that 1% of registered vehicle were involved in accidents in 2008 and every year in between.

    Since there were virtually no cell phones in 1990 and hundreds of thousands in 2008 it is obvious that the increase in there use has had no affect on overall driver safety.

  12. Amazing with all the other driver distractions that have gone unaddressed over the years cell phones and the like are the focus. The likes of eating and reading perhaps a book, a map or doing your hair are not considered. That is before like another poster added children, pets and smoking.

    I notice that the police typing on their laptops is not mentioned they are exempt as well from seat belt laws. It is well know, as I was once a police officer that they are often the worse and most distracted drivers on the planet.

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