How Dangerous Is Talking On the Phone While Driving?

Maybe Talking On the Phone While Driving Is Not As Bad As We’ve Been Made To Think? Maybe It’s More About the Driver…

New research which takes advantage of the increase in cell phone use after 9 pm due to the popularity of ‘free nights and weekends’ plans showed no corresponding increase in crash rates.

Additionally, the researchers analyzed the effects of legislation banning cellphone use, enacted in several states, and similarly found that the legislation had no effect on the crash rate. ‘One thought is that drivers may compensate for the distraction of cellphone use by selectively deciding when to make a call or consciously driving more carefully during a call.

Our take? Count this research as a win for common sense.

Driving under the (Cellular) Influence
By Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram S. Pathania

Does talking on a cell phone while driving increase your risk of a crash? The popular belief is that it does—a recent New York Times/CBS News survey found that 80 percent of Americans believe that cell phone use should be banned.1 This belief is echoed by recent research. Over the last few years, more than 125 published studies have examined the impact of driver cell phone use on vehicular crashes.2 In an influential paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Redelmeier and Tibshirani (1997)—henceforth, RT—concluded that cell phones increase the relative likelihood of a crash by a factor of 4.3. Laboratory and epidemiological studies have further compared the relative crash risk of phone use while driving to that produced by illicit levels of alcohol (RT; Strayer, Drews, and Crouch 2006).

If alcohol, however, is responsible for 40 percent of fatal and 7 percent of all crashes each year, as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), then Figure 1 illustrates a puzzle. Cell phone ownership (i.e., cellular subscribers/population) has grown sharply since 1988, average use per subscriber has risen from 140 to 740 minutes a month since 1993, and surveys indicate that as many as 81 percent of cellular owners use their phones while driving—yet aggregate crash rates have fallen substantially over this period. No study has yet provided causal evidence of the relationship between cell phone use and crashes in the field. In this paper, we adopt a unique approach, and novel data, to estimate the causal link between cellular use and the crash rate. Specifically, we exploit a natural experiment which arises from a feature characterizing a large share of cellular phone plans from 2002 to 2005—a discontinuity in the marginal price of a phone call at 9 pm on weekdays.

Read doctors Bhargava and Pathania’s complete research study here.