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Vermont Legislative Research Shop

Cellular Phones & Automobiles

A surge in cell phone use over the past decade has raised several safety questions among lawmakers and concerned citizens. The focus of this concern surrounds the various distractions that cell phones can cause when one is driving an automobile. A recent survey by the Nation Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that 85% of the U.S.’s 95 million cell phone owners use them while driving, up from 10 million in 1994(Armour 2000). This enormous jump in use has coincided with a jump in traffic deaths linked to cell phone use. Frances Bents, a co-author of the recent NHTSA safety report implicated cell phones involved in at least 450 traffic deaths a year (Greve 2000). However, it is very difficult to get accurate statistics involving such accidents, as only 10 states require police to determine whether the driver was using a phone. A report by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in 1999 found that existing studies on driving and cell phone use show accident rates increase anywhere form 34% to more than 300% (Halladay 2000). An independent study done by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found that the risk factor for driving while using a cell phone amounted to 6.4 fatalities per million drivers annually. The study also found that the chance that a driver using a cell phone would kill a pedestrian or other motorist was 1.5 per million people. Combining these figures with the 210 million licensed drivers in the US, amounted to a risk factor of roughly 1,660 fatalities per year involving cell phone related accidents.

California, Florida, and Massachusetts are the only states that impose minor restrictions on cell phone use in automobiles. In Brookline, Massachusetts an ordinance was passed banning cell phone use in cars, fining people $50 if caught (Gebler 2000). According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states since 1995 have proposed legislation that varied from restrictions for hands-free devices, call length restrictions, keep one ear free, to an all out ban, though none of the bills have passed. As of yet the federal government has done nothing to limit cell phone use in automobiles. Fourteen industrialized nations, including Britain, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Australia and Spain restrict or prohibit cell phone use by drivers (Greve 2000).

Legislation Opposition

The $40 billion cell phone industry does not accept the accident link. The industry argues that they are linked to careless driving and not problems directly related to the device. Cellular industry supporters insist that cell phones pose only a minor nuisance, and that can be easily corrected with education and training. Supporters cite numerous benefits to cell phone use in automobiles. These benefits include economic reasons such as conducting business while stuck in traffic. Personal safety concerns, that is the ease of making a call in an emergency. Mechanical benefits include calling for roadside assistance, and general access reasons, such as staying in touch with loved ones (Memmer, 2000). According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, recent economic studies suggest that the monetary value of using a cellular phone while driving exceeds the costs, even when those costs include safety risks expressed in dollar units.

Public Opinion

A public opinion poll on cell phone restrictions done by Portrait of America, an independent polling corporation, shows that 47% of American adults believe it should be against the law to use a cell phone while driving. At the same time 44% of American adults believe that there should not be any restrictions placed on cell phone use in automobiles. Of the Americans surveyed that are senior citizens, 70% believe that driving and dialing should be illegal, however for the under 30 crowd, only 35% believe it should be prohibited.


Armour, Stephanie. 2000. "Workers Told to Stay off Cell Phones."  USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/review/crh551.htm)  

Greve, Frank. 2000. "Restricting Car Phones is a Difficult Sell in the US." Philadelphia Inquirer () 

Gebler, Dan. 2000. "Hang Up and Drive?" Wireless Newsfactor (www.wirelessnewsfactor.com/perl/story/5627.html)  

Halladay, Jessie. 2000. "Driver Wins Cell Phone Crash Verdict."  USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/review/crh769.htm)

Memmer, Scott. 2000. "Cell Phone Safety."  Edmunds.com (http://www.edmunds.com/edweb/editorial/features/cell_phone_safety/)

National Conference of State Legislatures. Aug 1999. "Cell Phones and Driving: 1999 State Legislative Update."

Nation Highway Traffic Safety Administration. November 1997.  "An Investigation of the Safety Implications of Wireless Communications in Vehicles."

Portrait of America. July 2000. "View on Driving With Cell Phone Divided: Non Users Want Ban; Users Don’t."  (http://www.portraitofamerica.com/html/poll-1056.html)



Compiled by Jesse Kraham, and Nathan Bosshard on April 2, 2001.