Automobile Drivers be Prohibited from Using Cellular Telephones?
Although penalties vary according to jurisdiction, driving while intoxicated is against the law in all of the 50 states because the practice is known to be dangerous to the perpetrator as well as the general public. Similarly, studies have shown time and again that driving while talking on a cellular telephone or using these devices to text others is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated, but the practice remains legal throughout most of the United States. In response to these trends, though, the federal government along with a growing number of states, have enacted laws that prohibit drivers from using their cellular telephones for texting, but the regulation of cellular telephone use for other purposes largely remains unregulated. Although the case can be made that texting involves far more distraction than simply talking on a cellular phone, the fact remains that anything that detracts from a driver's attention to the road represents a threat, and in the case of cell phone use, a threat that can be mitigated by appropriate legislation. To determine whether such laws are needed, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
According to there are some important issues involved in the debate over banning cell phone use while driving, with the first and foremost of these being the safety issue. In this regard, Trapp (2007) reports that, "Using a cell phone while driving is very dangerous. Physically holding a handset removes one hand from the controls, making accidents more likely, while dialing is even worse, as it also requires users to divert attention from the road" (p. 53). In fact, studies have shown that reaction time while using a cell phone is even worse than for drunk drivers (Trapp, 2007).
Recent trends across the country make it clear that lawmakers at all levels are taking notice of the dangers represented by cell phone use while driving and are taking action. For example, in response to a number of high-profile accidents involving texting while driving, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently released revised federal guidelines that now prohibit commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones or texting while they are driving (Passen, 2010). This federal action follows a broader national trend that is intended to reduce the number of people who are seriously injured or killed in bus or truck accidents across the country, and 19 states as well as the District of Columbia have also banned texting while driving (Passen, 2010). Likewise, a growing number of states, including New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have already banned the use of cellular telephones while driving and a number of other states are also considering full or partial bans of their own (O'Rourke, 2004).
Notwithstanding the rationale of the arguments against banning cell phone use while driving to the contrary, from a strictly pragmatic perspective, these laws against texting just make good sense. After all, anyone who has ever tried to text a message on a tiny hand-held device with even tinier buttons can readily testify to the complexity of the task as well as the manual and mental dexterity that is required to compose and send a message, making this practice especially dangerous for anyone operating a moving vehicle. With respect to cell phone use in general, though, there are some mixed views.
On the one hand, proponents of banning the practice emphasize that talking on a telephone while driving is vastly different from speaking with passengers in a vehicle, perhaps because the passengers are also aware of potential road hazards and modify their conversations accordingly (Trapp, 2007). Other authorities cite the tendency for people talking on a cell phone to be drawn into what has been described as the "Cell Phone Zone" in which "the person is pulled by some force that comes out from the screen. The Cell Phone Force magnetically grabs your attention, and pulls it onto the screen, away from your physical surroundings" (Gozzi, 2008, p. 382).
Critics of banning cell phone use while driving, on the other hand, argue that cell phone use is no more dangerous than other distracting activities that drivers routinely engage in such as listening to the radio and changing stations, changing DVDs or CDs in vehicle-mounted players, fighting with other passengers or attempting to calm agitated children (Trapp, 2007). While it is reasonable to suggest that no one wants to be around drivers who are so preoccupied, the fact remains that cell phone use may be no more distracting than these activities, making the regulation of its legal status questionable by civil libertarians who suggest outlawing cell phones is not the comprehensive answer that is needed to reduce all driver distractions (Trapp, 2007). Indeed, even advocates of banning cell phone use equate the practice with these other types of distractions. For instance, Strayer and Drews note that, "Driving is a complex activity involving the combination of a number of task-relevant activities (navigating: maintaining lane position, following distance, and speed: reacting to unexpected events, etc.) and task-irrelevant activities (using a cell phone, adjusting the radio, conversing with passengers, eating, lighting a cigarette, shaving, applying makeup, etc.) [cause] deficiencies in driving" (p. 641).
Moreover, critics of laws banning cell phone use while driving also cite the unenforceability of such laws, particularly if a hands-free device is used, reducing any citations to a "he-said, she-said" confrontation between law enforcement and the general public (Trapp, 2007). Indeed, cell phones that feature a speaker function or that are mountable on automobile dashboards are becoming ubiquitous across the United States (Simon, 2008). Furthermore, there are already more than 100 million Americans who use their cell phones while driving from time to time, a number that is expected to continue to grow in the future (Strayer & Drews, 2004), making enforceability of laws against cell phone use while driving especially difficult to enforce. In this regard, O'Rourke (2004) likewise reports that, "At any given lime during the day, an estimated 500,000 passenger vehicle drivers are talking on hand-held cell phones. The use of cell phones by drivers may result in some 2,600 deaths, 330,000 injuries and 1.5 million instances of property damage in the United States every year" (p. 9). The results of a study conducted by the Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies determined that, "Cell phone drivers may actually exhibit greater impairment (i.e., more accidents and less responsive driving behavior) than intoxicated drivers" (O'Rourke, 2004, p. 9).
Despite the clearly evident need to mitigate the impact of cell phone use while driving, the foregoing arguments against banning cell phone use while driving are spurious in large part, though, because the other activities they cite as being equally distracting to the driver (i.e., calming children, changing radio stations, etc.) are also illegal in all of the 50 states, although the offense may be referred to in different ways such as "inattentive driving," but all of which assign ultimate responsibility for vehicular accidents to driver negligence (Owen, 1995). These existing laws against driver negligence also complicate the debate over whether cell phones use while driving should be banned in the first place or whether the practice is already covered by existing laws. For example, because there are already laws on the books in all states that address driver negligence, it is reasonable to suggest that drivers who are found negligent by virtue of cell phone use would be cited for the activity making the promulgation of new laws that specifically address cell phone use redundant and therefore unnecessarily expensive with regards to their enactment, as well as their enforcement and prosecution.
While it first appeared that banning cellular telephone…