States Outlawing Handheld Devices Cut Usage

By Danny King August 11, 2011

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State laws that mandate use of hands-free devices when talking on a mobile phone behind the wheel may have cut handheld device usage in half over the past year, indicating that the combination of such laws and efforts by the U.S. Transportation Department to publicize the danger of driving while talking on a handheld device has been effective. Among drivers in states with the hands-free laws, about 35 percent of those who regularly employ communication devices while behind the wheel use handheld devices to make calls, but that’s down from about 80 percent in 2010, according to a study released this week by telematics product maker iQ-Telematics and Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

About two-thirds of those surveyed in states and regions that outlaw use of handheld devices behind the wheel -- California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New, Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington, and in Washington D.C. -- said they didn't use any communications devices behind the wheel at all. Both state and federal governments are looking to cut automobile fatalities by either enacting or increasing penalties associated with texting or talking without a hands-free device behind the wheel. Distracted-driving accidents killed almost 5,500 people and injured another half-million people in the U.S. in 2009. About one in six fatal accidents that year was caused by a distracted driver.

As much as 30 percent of recent car crashes involved someone who was distracted by using a cell phone, texting or some other activity that pulled the driver's attention away from the road, according to a report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) last month. About two-thirds of the drivers reported using a cell phone while driving sometime during the past year, with about half of those people using a mobile phone regularly. About an eighth of the drivers said they've texted while driving. The GHSA study also said laws banning use of hand-held phones behind the wheel cut such use in half when first enacted, though some people eventually returned to the habit.

The iQ-Telematics/Oakland University study also implies that many dangerous habits remain despite the mandates against hand-held devices. About one in five hands-free device users read e-mail while driving, while about 16 percent browsed the Internet and 9.4 percent texted, according to the study.

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that Connecticut and New York State crackdowns on handheld mobile-phone use and texting behind the wheel cut distracted driving by at least a third, indicating that increased law enforcement and public-service announcements likely decrease traffic fatalities stemming from distracted driving. In Syracuse, N.Y., reported instances of driving while holding a cell phone or texting fell by more than 30 percent during periods of stepped-up enforcement. In Hartford, Conn., instances of holding a cell phone behind the wheel fell 57 percent during stepped-up enforcement, while and instances of texting while driving plummeted more than 70 percent, according to NHTSA.

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