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Cell-phone talking while driving doesn't lead to higher crash risk, research says

Matt Hamblen | Aug. 12, 2013
Carnegie Mellon study looked at real-world cellular calling and millions of accident records from 2002 to 2005.

Talking on a cell phone while driving doesn't increase the risk of an accident, according to new research that looked at real-world accidents and cell-phone calls by drivers in the U.S. from 2002 to 2005.

"Using a cell phone while driving may be distracting, but does not lead to higher crash risk in the setting we examined," said Saurabh Bhargava, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and one of the two researchers in the study.

The study, published in the August issue of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy was described in a report Thursday from Carnegie Mellon in Futurity, an online publication that brings research from leading universities to the public's attention. (Access to the full 33-page study article, "Driving under the (Cellular) Influence" in the economic journal costs $9.50 for 24 hours' access.)

Bhargava did the research with Vikram Pathania, a fellow in the London School of Economics and Political Science. The researchers only focused on talking on a cell phone, not texting or Internet browsing, which have been highly popular in recent years. Pathania said it is possible that texting and browsing could pose a real hazard.

The study used the cell-phone calling patterns of a single, unnamed wireless carrier to track an increase in call volume of 7% at 9 p.m. on weekdays when most carriers were offering free calls during the 2002 to 2005 period. Drivers were identified as those whose cell phone calls were routed through multiple cellular towers.

The researchers also compared crash rates before and after 9 p.m., looking at about 8 million crashes in nine states and all the fatal crashes nationwide.

The researchers found that the increase in cell phone usage had no effect on crash rates. The highest odds of a crash while using a cell phone was determined in the new study to be significantly less than that found by two researchers in 1997 who equated cell phone use by drivers to illegal levels of alcohol use.

Bhargava explained the study's results saying that drivers may compensate for cell-phone use distractions by deciding to make or continue a call later or driving more carefully during a call. If drivers really do compensate for such distractions, then it makes sense for state lawmakers to penalize drivers for cell phone use as a secondary, rather than a primary, offense, he said. A secondary offense means a driver would have to be stopped first for a primary offense, such as speeding.

Many studies of cell phone usage have focused on distractions in laboratory or field tests, but haven't used real world data, Bhargava noted.

The National Safety Council has urged states to pass laws making cell phone usage of any kind while driving a primary offense. The council also advocates for a ban on using a cell phone for texting, talking, browsing or any other purpose while driving.

 

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