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Pros and cons of a federal ban on cell phone use while driving

posted Sep 13, 2012, 10:51 PM by Simon Nguyen   [ updated Oct 2, 2012, 7:41 PM ]
The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued a recommendation that calls for a nationwide ban on mobile usage when driving. The board cited a NHTSA survey that found more than 3000 people killed in 2010 due to distracted driving as a key supporting evidence. What are the pros and cons of a federal ban on cell phone use while driving?

Although there is no question that talking or texting on cell phones while driving poses a safety risk, the same thing could be said for other things people do when driving such as talking to other passengers, listening to the radio, watching DVDs, caretaking their kids or day dreaming. In fact, a Canadian study found singing or even listening to music when driving to be a safety hazard. Since all of the aforementioned activities are major driving distractions, should we also ban them as well?

A ban on hand-held cell phone use has already been implemented in a number of states. However, its impact in curbing traffic accidents is not clear-cut. In 2008, California passed a law that prohibits the use of hand-held mobile devices while driving. A recent study conducted by state authorities found the traffic deaths related to hand-held cell phone drivers decreased by 47% since the ban was in place. Yet, the results were blurred by the fact that overall traffic deaths also decreased by 22%. The data is likely to have been biased by factors other than the ban.

Also, the tough economy from 2008 and on and high gas prices could have been big factors in the decline of traffic deaths. Fewer drivers on the road mean fewer traffic accidents and deaths.

Proponents of a federal ban would say that hand-held cell phone use while driving is a much more dangerous maneuver, because it limits the driver to only one hand on the wheel. Driving with one hand for long periods has been known to cause serious accidents.

Taking in all the factors, the main problem seems to be the cell phone habit of drivers. If drivers only use cellphones occasionally and briefly or for emergency only while driving, this would not be a safety hazard. Unfortunately, many people often go beyond that especially with texting. Banning cellphone use could help but people will find other ways to be distracted when driving. We can legislate actions but not carelessness.

Simon Nguyen, M.A. Economics