The Suffolk County, New York, legislature earlier this month became the first county to pass a law banning the use of mobile phones without a so-called hands-free microphone device. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, carries a $150 fine per offense.
Industry experts say legislation also is being considered in several smaller municipalities. Furthermore, as many as 27 state legislatures have considered similar cellular phone laws, though none have yet been successful, according to Suffolk County.
In spite of this, 61 percent of respondents oppose a government ban on cellular phone use while driving.
Although not scientific, the survey and the new laws bolster beliefs that wireless phones are a distraction while driving and may contribute to automobile accidents and near misses. For most motorists, the issue should come as no surprise.
"I think anyone who has been on the highways lately has witnessed the potential for distraction and accidents with cell phones," said Lou Richman, an editor at Consumers Union, a nonprofit product testing and consumer advocacy organization.
Safety issues have taken on greater importance because of the immense popularity of mobile phones and wireless Internet devices. More than 100 million U.S. consumers subscribe to a wireless phone service, and the industry is expected to sell more than 400 million new handsets worldwide this year.
"It's very ironic that the cell phone has been adopted by many people as a means of safety, and it turns out that it possibly introduces another hazard into their driving experience," Richman said. "It's probably a greater risk than what we know about radiation emission risks."
Mobile phones, in many ways, have made the roads safer than ever. Emergency response to accidents and other roadside problems has been expedited by wireless phones, as has the relay of information to authorities about traffic congestion or reckless drivers. The wireless industry is quick to point out that many motorists have a greater sense of personal safety as a result of carrying a mobile phone.
Uncle Sam is watching
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation charged with protecting drivers from injury and reducing roadway fatalities, held a hearing in July on driver distractions. The division is building a $50 million driving simulator in Iowa to test the effect of distractions, such as talking on a wireless phone, on motorists.
Early evidence suggests the rate of crashes involving mobile phones is similar to those involving other distractions, such as eating, applying makeup, using an electric razor, drinking coffee, changing radio stations or other common activities.
"Getting at the issue of driver distraction is hard. People are very reluctant to admit they were doing something stupid or talking on the cell phone," said a researcher at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who declined to be named. "If an individual doesn't volunteer that information, it's hard to link it to a crash."
Although the data remains sparse, experts say most phone-related crashes occur during conversation, not while dialing, which would suggest hands-free headsets are not particularly effective. Experts say the cognitive distraction of engrossing conversation, rather than a physical one such as fumbling with a phone or car stereo, leads to many rear-end crashes, consistent with inattention.
Despite the distraction concerns, roadway fatalities have remained flat around 42,000 in recent years--though the number of injuries is on the rise, topping 3.2 million last year. Many of those accidents are alcohol-related or involve motorcycles, off-road sport utility vehicles and passengers that did not wear a protective safety belt.
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) has embarked on a campaign, dubbed "Safety--Your Most Important Call," that offers safe-driving tips and a toll-free phone number offering consumers similar safety suggestions.
"We don't think that wireless phones should be zeroed in on. Drivers partake in a number of different activities?while behind the wheel," said CTIA spokeswoman Dee Yankoskie. "In addressing the overall driver distraction issue, as an industry we believe that education, not legislation, would prove more beneficial in raising public awareness."