They are a convenience and a curse. Cell phones increase worker productivity and keep us linked to family and friends. They are also killers, particularly when we get behind the wheel joining 812,000 American drivers who at any given moment are using hand-held cell phones to talk or text.

Alternate description

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

Studies indicate that driving while using a cell phone, regardless of whether the device is hand-held or hands-free, is tantamount to driving drunk. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), driving while distracted (DWD) led to nearly 6,000 deaths on roads last year. At least another half a million people were injured in traffic accidents stemming from cell phone use. Drivers in the 20-and-under age bracket are the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Last year in California, a texting commuter train operator killed 25 people, and a truck driver in Florida – also distracted by texting – collided with a school bus and killed a student. Texting while driving was the source of an accident this past May in Boston, where a preoccupied trolley driver slammed into another trolley that was waiting at a red light. Dozens of passengers were injured.

State Laws

Cell phone driving laws vary from state to state. Here is a list of cell phone legislation from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) as of October 2009:

  • Hand Held Cell Phone Bans for All Drivers: six states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington), the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.
    • With the exception of Washington, these laws are all primary enforcement – an officer may ticket a driver for using a hand-held cell phone while driving without any other traffic offense taking place.
  • All Cell Phone Bans: No state completely bans all types of cell phone use (hand-held and hands-free) for all drivers, but many prohibit cell phone use by certain segments of the population.
    • Novice (Newly Licensed) Drivers: 21 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by novice drivers.
    • School Bus Drivers: In 17 states and the District of Columbia, school bus drivers are prohibited from all cell phone use when passengers are present.
  • Text Messaging: 18 states and the District of Columbia now ban text messaging for all drivers.
    • Novice Drivers: nine states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.
    • School Bus Drivers: one state restricts school bus drivers from texting while driving.
  • Preemption Laws: eight states have laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions. In six other states, localities are allowed to ban cell phone use.

Interested in how your state regulates cell phone usage? Go to the GHSA website for specifics.

“These accidents and loss of life are all the more tragic because they were 100 percent avoidable,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Driving while using a cell phone is irresponsible. There is no conversation, no question in need of an answer that warrants putting your life and those of others at risk.”

These alarming statistics led the DOT to hold a distracted driving summit in September during which safety experts, industry representatives, elected officials and members of the public brainstormed about how to combat the cell phone menace. At the event’s conclusion, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans to advance new legislation to:

  • Make permanent restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in rail operations
  • Ban text messaging altogether and restrict the use of cell phones by truck and interstate bus operators
  • Disqualify school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving from maintaining their commercial driver’s licenses

The proposed rules dovetail with President Obama’s Executive Order forbidding federal employees from texting while driving. The order covers government vehicles and private cars if they are being used on official business. It also encourages contractors and others doing business with the federal government to ban texting while driving on the job.

“We applaud President Obama’s efforts to curtail behind-the-wheel cell phone use,” Borck says. “However, we also need to keep in mind that wireless devices are not the only distractions diverting driver attention. Applying makeup, shaving, eating, drinking coffee or soda and smoking have all led to accidents. Pull off the road before engaging in any of them.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]