To many Americans, driving a car without being able to talk on a cell phone might seem like a trip back to the dark ages. But that's what the National Safety Council would like to see -- a ban on all cell phone use by drivers.
Today, the safety group is launching a nationwide effort to try to persuade businesses and state legislatures to forbid drivers from using any cell phone -- hand-held or hands-free -- while behind the wheel.
"The science tells [us] when [we're] on the phone while driving, it is a high-risk activity -- very, very risky," said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "But most people don't understand that."
Having a cell phone conversation while driving has become so common that 80 percent of drivers say they've done it, according to a May 2008 Nationwide Insurance poll. More than 40 percent of those surveyed said they'd been hit or almost hit by another driver who was talking on a cell phone.
Many drivers believe they're safe if they're using a hands-free phone, but research has shown otherwise. A 2005 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers using cell phones were four times as likely to have an accident involving an injury, according to Ann McCartt, senior vice president for research at the insurance institute.
McCartt said that was true for those using a hand-held or hands-free device.
"I think there is still a big misconception among drivers and policymakers, intuitively, that a hands-free phone would be safer," she said. "And there may be a margin of safety there, but it is still unsafe."
The reason, according to researchers, is that either way, a driver is distracted by the conversation.
Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University studied the brain waves of drivers using cell phones and concluded that listening alone reduced the amount of brain activity devoted to driving by 37 percent. The quality of driving showed a "significant deterioration," according to the study released last year.
"What the research is saying [is] it is an enormous distraction if you're on the phone and you're not paying attention to what is going on around you," Froetscher said.
The National Safety Council said a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that cell phone use on the road contributes to 6 percent of all accidents and as many as 2,600 deaths per year.
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by first-time drivers, but no state forbids adults from using cell phones in cars. Five states -- California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Washington -- as well as the District of Columbia forbid all drivers from using hand-held cell phones.
So the council is starting at ground zero and admits it will be a tough sell.
"I think the hard part is many of us have grown used to using our cell phone on the road," Froetscher said. "And it's hard for us to give [it] up."
"It would be hard for me because I spend a lot of time in the car," said Sheri Dambrose today in Chicago, conceding that she thinks it would probably be safer to hang up. "If I'm not at work and I'm in the car driving kids from one place to another, trying to stay connected with the kids and see who needs a ride or who needs to be dropped off somewhere."
But an industry trade association thinks the council is going too far.