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Cellular Telephones in Motor Vehicles


How big is the problem?

Cellular telephones were introduced in the United States in 1983. By the end of December 1999, there were more than 86 million subscribers (1). Drivers who use a cellular telephone while their vehicle is in motion are at four or more times the risk of being in a crash than non-callers (2, 3). This level of risk, during the time interval of the call, is comparable to driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 -- the legal limit in many states. Further, it appears that there is no safety advantage to calling hands-free as compared with calls using hand-held telephones (2, 4, 5). Engaging in telephone conversations while driving has been demonstrated to significantly slow reaction time and to decrease the precision of steering (6, 7). Dialing the cell phone presents a substantially greater risk of crashing than tuning the radio (8). Cellular telephone manufacturers recognize these risks and have included strongly worded cautions against the use of cell phones while the car is in motion (9).

Telephones are becoming more compact with tiny keypads and small screens. These miniaturized phones require more attention to use. At the same time cell phones are beginning to incorporate new technologies that allow for browsing the Web, managing bank and investment accounts, and purchasing merchandise. These additional opportunities for distraction are likely to increase the risk of crashes.

Policies and Details

1. Businesses shall establish rules that prohibit the use of cellular telephones while driving a vehicle.

There is strong evidence that the use of cell phones while driving increases the risk of crashing. There is evidence that conversations that require advanced cognitive tasks, such as negotiation, further increase crash risk (3, 10). Thus, business oriented calls including those that require writing down information, such as figures or addresses, are particularly hazardous. Employers should establish clear policies regarding the use of cell phones while in a vehicle. Although cell phones may be seen as a way to increase worker productivity, this should be balanced against the risks of human tragedy.

Some companies have already taken this step. Praxair, the Fortune 500 industrial gas company, was one of the first major corporations to issue a policy restricting the use of cell phones in a moving vehicle. In September 1998, Praxair published a rule prohibiting the use of company or private phones while driving. The memo instructs employees to, "Pull over to a safe location and stop before using a cell phone. Any time you may save by continuing to drive while using the phone is absolutely not worth the safety risk" (11).

If being a good corporate citizen isn't sufficient incentive, businesses should consider the litigation risks. Recently, a stockbroker with the brokerage firm Smith Barney ran a red light while using his cell phone and had a crash that resulted in a fatality. The surviving family brought a suit against the brokerage firm that was settled for $500,000 (12).

2. Communities shall enact local ordinances that restrict the use of cellular telephones while driving a vehicle.

It has been argued that the best answer to the risks imposed by driving while using cell phones is legislation to prohibit that behavior. Laws exist in several other nations (Australia, Brazil, Chile, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan) that restrict driver use of mobile phone use to times the vehicle isn't in motion (13). Since 1995, legislation has been proposed in at least 34 states that includes everything from outright bans to improving data collection on phone use and collisions. However, none of these initiatives have passed, leaving the U.S. with no state-level legislation restricting cell phone use while in a motor vehicle (13, 14). The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association spends millions to lobby against these bills (14).

Given these strong political pressures and the fact that this is a relatively new problem, local communities may initially be more successful than state governments in passing laws regulating driver use of cell phones. In 1999, Brooklyn, Ohio became the first city in the United States to ban the use of cellular phones while driving (13). Since that time several other communities across the U.S. have started regulating cell phone use in vehicles (15). The activity around a campaign to introduce and pass an ordinance, even if unsuccessful, can be an effective way to raise awareness of the problem.

3. Professional, civic, social, and faith organizations shall recommend to members that they refrain from using cellular telephones while driving a vehicle.

Most cell phone calls are now for personal rather than business purposes (16). Although more than 4 out of 5 cell phone owners believe that using a cell phone distracts drivers and increases the likelihood of crashes, more than 60 percent say that they use them while driving (17). It is likely, however, that most people do not recognize the extent of the hazard created by the use of a phone while driving. Simple public information campaigns about the risks of phoning and driving aren't likely to have much impact on the problem. Following the example of successful campaigns to stop driving under the influence of alcohol, it is important to make using a phone while driving a socially unacceptable behavior. This can be accomplished by delivering the message through respected authority figures, friends, and family members.


It has been argued by the cell phone industry that the number of phone-related crashes is too small to warrant restricting their use. However, specific information on the number of crashes related to cell phone use is not available. Only two states, Minnesota and Oklahoma, collect any information about cell phone use as a possible factor in crash reports. In other states, the only way telephone use can be recorded in the databases is if they are mentioned in the narrative description of the crash. In most states, the use of a cell phone is lumped together with other driver attention factors such as dealing with children, tuning the radio, lighting a cigarette, or reading (18). Thus, population-based traffic statistics showing a very small number of phone-related crashes are misleading. An agency cannot report what it cannot count.

Although the true risk of cell phone use appears to be much greater, if it is conservatively assumed that the risk of crashing is only doubled and that one in ten cars is equipped with a cellular phone, then about one percent of all collisions in the United States could be prevented if drivers did not phone while their car is in motion (19). This translates to $2 billion to $4 billion per year in costs to society (20) that could be averted if phoning while driving were eliminated.


Patricia Pena
Advocates for Cell Phone Safety

407 South Sixth Street
Perkasie, PA 18944
Phone: (215) 453-7254
Fax: (215) 453-7117

Additional Information


1. Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. Semi-annual Wireless Industry Survey, 1985-1999. Available online:, June 10, 2000.

2. Redelmeier DA, Tibshirani RJ. Association between Cellular-Telephone Calls and Motor Vehicle Collisions. The New England Journal of Medicine, 336(7):453-458, 2000. Available online:, June 10, 2000.

3. Violanti JM, Marshall JR. Cellular telephones and traffic accidents: an epidemiologic approach. Accident Analysis and Prevention; 28(2):265-270, 1996.

4. Strayer DL, Johnson WA. Driven to distraction: Dual-task studies of driving and cellular phone use (Conference presentation). Abstracts from the Psychonomic Society, 4-16, 1999.

5. Horswill MS, McKenna FP. The effect of interference on dynamic risk-taking judgments. British Journal of Psychology; 90:189-199, 1999.

6. Alm H, Nilsson L. The effects of a mobile telephone task on driver behaviour in a car following situation. Accident Analysis and Prevention; 27(5):707-715, 1995.

7. Brookhuis KA, de Vries G, de Waard D. The effects of mobile telephoning on driving performance. Accident Analysis and Prevention; 23(4):309-316, 1991.

8. Stein AC, Parseghian Z, Allen RW. A simulator study of the safety implications of cellular mobile telephone use. American Association for Automotive Medicine, 31st Annual Proceedings, September 28-30, 1987, New Orleans, Louisiana.

9. Nokia Mobile Phones, Inc. Owner's Manual: Nokia 918, p. 1. Nokia Mobile Phones, Inc. Owners Manual: Nokia 2180, p. 1. Qualcomm, Inc. CDMA Wireless Phone User Guide (QCP-820™ and QCP-1920™ Phones), p. 47.

10. McKnight AJ, McKnight AS. The effect of cellular phones on driver attention. Accident Analysis and Prevention 25(3):259-265, 1993.

11. Praxair Corporation. Employee Bulletin; 7(132):September 24, 1998.

12. Roberts v. Smith Barney, ED Pa, No. 97-CV-2727, settled February 1999.

13. National Council of State Legislatures. Cell Phones and Driving: 1999 State Legislative Update. Available online:, June 10, 2000.

14. Cable News Network. CNN News Stand, May 31, 2000. Transcript available online:, June 10, 2000.

15. Halper E. Talking while driving? Guilty! The Philadelphia Enquirer, April 14, 2000, edition C, section B, page 1.

16. Cain A, Burris M. Demographics of Mobile Phone Use (Chapter 2, table 5) in Investigation of the Use of Mobile Phones While Driving. Citing: 1) Cellular Telephone Industry Association Survey, available online at; 2) Hart PD and Associates, The Evolving Wireless Marketplace, 1998, available online at:; and 3) Gallup Organization, The Motorola Cellular Impact Survey: Evaluating 10 Years of Cellular Ownership in America, Princeton, New Jersey: The Gallup Organization, 1993.

17. Insurance Research Council. Public Attitude Monitor, 1997: Cellular Phones. Available online:

18. Goodman M, Bents FD, Tijerina L, Wierwille W, Lerner N, Benel D. An Investigation on the Safety Implications on Wireless Communications in Motor Vehicles, DOT HS 808-635, 1997. Washington, DC National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Available online:

19. Maclure M, Mittleman MA. Cautions about Car Telephones and Collisions. The New England Journal of Medicine, 336(7):501-502, 1997; available online:, June 10, 2000.

20. Miller TR. Costs and functional consequences of U.S. roadway crashes. Accident Analysis and Prevention; 25(5):593-607, 1993.

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Last modified: 4-August-2000.