Jan. 12, 2009 -- 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.
Dangers of Cell Phone Use on the Road
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.
"There are some real-life scenarios where those are important phone calls that you need to make or take," said John Walls, spokesman for The Wireless Association, such as calling to say you'll be late to pick up a child at day care or a call from your teenager trying to reach you because the movie let out early.
"A sensible, a responsible and a brief phone call, we think, can be made and sometimes needs to be made in order for life's everyday challenges to be met," Walls said.
Walls also disputed the council's view that talking on a cell phone while driving is inherently dangerous, saying the overall number of highway accidents have declined, even as cell phone use has skyrocketed.
Even groups that support a cell phone ban in vehicles aren't sure that passing legislation will prove effective.
"I don't think outright bans are enforceable," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "That's the biggest problem. So what is the point of passing a law that you can't enforce?"
Harsha said she believes this is a "growing, pervasive, problem," but said, "It's an issue in search of a good countermeasure."
Some believe technology that will disable cell phones while in a moving vehicle will ultimately prove to be the answer. Another solution: persuading businesses to ban cell phone use while employees are driving on the job.
Companies are increasingly doing that. Oil giant ExxonMobil was in the forefront of this movement, and four years ago told all employees to stop making or taking cell phone calls while driving.
Going Mobile During Traffic: Breaking the Habit
"It was a temptation," he said. "You look at the cell phone, it would be ringing, and you'd say, should I pick it up or should I not?"
Kelly, who carries both a work and a personal cell phone, now turns them off in the car. He said he's gotten used to just concentrating on his driving and even makes it a practice to follow the rule on his own time.
Kelly said it has not hurt his productivity and he knows the company acted because it's safer when employees concentrate 100 percent on their driving.
The National Safety Council admits that any effort to ban cell phones in vehicles will take years of work, whether it succeeds at all. The council likens it to campaigns to require seat belts and child safety seats in cars and to strengthen drunken-driving laws. At first drivers opposed many of those efforts. Now, they say this is accepted practice on the road, and few would want it any other way.
Suzan Gruber of Chicago, for one, said she'd welcome some time without a cell phone.
"That would be fantastic," she said. "That would be like the old days when nobody could get a hold of you."