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Inconclusive Data on Cell Phone Bans

Ever since cell phones became popular almost 20 years ago, Chicago residents have heard about the dangers of using them while driving. However, after almost two decades of research, there is still debate as to whether cell phones increase the likelihood of a serious car or truck accident. In addition, there is data that suggests the use of a hands-free device instead of handheld devices does nothing to increase driving safety.

Current Illinois state law prohibits the use of handheld cell phones in construction and school zones and does not allow drivers 18 and under to use them. However, a bill is pending in Springfield that proposes to ban all drivers from using handheld devices while driving. The city of Evanston is taking things a step further and considering an ordinance that will prohibit the use of any type of cell phone, hands-free or handheld, while behind the wheel.

Promoters of the new laws say they are concerned with safety, even though studies show a decrease in total car crashes since cell phones gained prominence. Analyzing the effects of cell phones on crashes is also a challenge because phone records are difficult to obtain in the United States, preventing researchers from using them to acquire crash data. It might be enough for some that people believe that cell phone bans increase safety and help prevent distracted driving.

However, a recent study questions whether cell phone use actually poses such dangers, noting that many studies fail to consider that some people are more careful driving while on the phone, while other people are simply poor drivers. Cell phones are undoubtedly a distraction, but for some drivers, they are simply the distraction of choice. If they were not using a phone, they would be fiddling with the radio, talking to other passengers, or simply letting their minds wander. A cell phone ban can remove one distraction, it cannot force an absent-minded driver to pay attention.

A spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association advises states to continue to enforce their current cell phone laws until further research becomes available. The ultimate question remains: How do we make the roads safer for everyone?

Source: Chicago Tribune, "Cellphones and driving: As dangerous as we think?," by Matthew Walberg, 26 March 2012

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