NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Just How Dangerous Is Talking and Driving?

January 26, 2012

A recent announcement by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for traffic safety, recommended that all states ban drivers from using portable electronic devices while driving.  Several states preempted this recommendation by creating regulations on their own, says Thomas A. Hemphill, an associate professor of strategy, innovation and public policy at the University of Michigan-Flint's School of Management.

  • According to the Governors Highway Traffic Association, 35 states, the District of Columbia and Guam ban texting while driving.
  • Nine states and the District of Columbia forbid hand-held cell phone use by drivers.
  • Thirty states prohibit all cell phone use for beginner drivers.

While the NTSB's recommendation applies to both texting and general cellphone use, states thus far have taken a much harsher stance toward texting than talking.

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) in July of 2009 can perhaps explain why texting is targeted much more often than talking.

  • It found that texting while driving increased the probability of a crash by a factor of 20 times.
  • Meanwhile, dialing a cell phone only increased the risk of accident only by a factor of 2.8 times, and that risk factor drops to 1.3 times when only talking.
  • As a point of comparison, reaching for something in the car had a risk factor of 1.4 times.

The results of the study suggest that texting is by far more dangerous than merely talking.

This calls into question the empirical backing for the NTSB's recommendation, as it would seem that regular, non-texting cellphone use is not even as dangerous as many other car distractions such as eating, drinking, conversing with passengers and daydreaming.  Furthermore, the recommendation follows one of the safest traffic years in recent history.

  • In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 32,788 people died as a result of motor vehicle accidents on American roadways -- the fewest since 1949.
  • According to the NHTSA, 3,092 of the 32,885 reported fatalities were distraction-related (down 43.5 percent from 5,474 fatalities in 2009).

Source: Thomas A. Hemphill, "Just How Dangerous Is Talking and Driving?" The American, January 24, 2012.

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