Smartphones, dumb drivers

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Can you safely talk on a cellphone — or for that matter, check your email or scroll through Google Maps — while driving? Well, of course you can. But those other folks with their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road are a public menace.

Unfortunately, that sums up the attitude of many American motorists, who widely acknowledge using their phones while behind the wheel but insist they’re safe drivers. Meanwhile, the number of people worried about the other guy is soaring. When the state Office of Traffic Safety asked California drivers to name the biggest safety problem on the road, nearly 40% listed drivers who use cellphones. That’s a big jump from last year, when the top worry was aggressive drivers and speeders, and only 18.3% were concerned about cellphones.

So what changed? Probably the explosion of smartphones, which aren’t so much phones as portable computers — and which, like a computer, require both eyes and often both hands, meaning that, in our view, drivers should never operate them. But they do. More than 1 in 4 Americans who download applications to their smartphones admit to using those apps while driving, according to a survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance. And the number of people with smartphones is growing fast. U.S. sales of smartphones are expected to hit 95 million in 2011, and 43% of mobile phone owners have smartphones; soon it will be a majority.


Motorists have good reason to worry about this. Studies show that people talking on their cellphones are four times more likely to be in an accident than other drivers, and their level of impairment is comparable to people with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, the legal limit. And that research was done back when cellphones were used only for making calls. Now that they’re used for posting on Facebook or playing Angry Birds, we suspect the dangers are much greater.

Lawmakers haven’t caught up. Thirty states ban cellphone use by novice drivers, but none do so for all drivers. California has a law that tries to limit the problem but aims at the wrong target. Here, it’s forbidden to text while driving or to hold a cellphone to one’s ear, but drivers over 18 can still talk using a hands-free device; moreover, it’s still technically legal to use a smartphone app while behind the wheel. This is both outdated and ineffective. There is no evidence that using hands-free devices reduces cellphone-related accidents, which happen because drivers are distracted by their conversations, not because they’re using one hand to hold a phone.

A total cellphone ban would avoid the problem of legislating for yesterday’s technology, and reduce the number of accidents. Meanwhile, if you value your life and the lives of others, don’t dial and drive.