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Driven to Distraction: Cell Phones in the Car

(updated May 5th, 2009)

The Debate Over DWY (Driving While Yakking)

At any given moment, more than 1 million U.S. drivers are talking on handheld cell phones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Why is this a problem? Cell phones (also called wireless phones) are a known distraction. In a 2008 survey by Nationwide Insurance, 67 percent of people admitted to using a cell phone while driving.

This has created an obvious concern about cell phone safety. Dozens of countries have banned the use of handheld phones while driving. In the U.S., California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, Washington, D.C. and many municipalities have fully outlawed in-vehicle handheld phone use. Dozens of states have banned cell phone use by minors and bus drivers. Many other attempts at strong state legislation have failed or been tabled.

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At the core of this flurry of legislative attempts is the debate over whether DWY — or "driving while yakking" — is truly dangerous. Wireless-phone proponents say that talking on a cell phone is the same as or less of a distraction than changing your radio station, trying to control your kids or eating — none of which is regulated of course. Since many states already have laws that ban distracted driving, they contend that outlawing handheld cell phones is penalizing the technology instead of the behavior.

A 2005 controlled study of Australian drivers found that cell phone users were four times as likely to get into an accident serious enough to injure them. These findings echoed the results of a 1997 study of Canadian drivers, who linked cell phone usage with increased property damage.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, driving while yakking is a distraction that may decrease our ability to operate the vehicle effectively. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) analyzed the results of over 120 cell phone studies. They found that nearly all of the studies reported that some aspects of driver performance were affected by the mental distraction associated with cell phone use. The IIHS reported that phone conversation tasks typically decreased reaction times, travel speeds, and increased lane deviations and steering wheel movements.

Clearly, now that we have learned the benefits of cell phones, there's no going back. Instead of stewing in traffic, we can conduct business and stay in touch with family and friends. We can let people know when we're running late. If there's a problem on the road, cell phones allow us to call for roadside assistance or medical help. We can report problems: a drunk driver, a stranded motorist, an obstacle in the road. Drivers even call in traffic reports to radio stations, allowing the rest of the community to benefit from their knowledge.

But let's face it. In spite of these benefits, cell phones do pose a serious risk because they distract from driving. With that in mind, here are our suggestions for using a cell phone safely in your car.

  • Get to know your phone and its features — if you can dial a number with one key instead of seven or 10, you're better off.
  • Position your phone within easy reach — bending over to reach for it takes your eyes of the road and can cause you to swerve.
  • Suspend calls in heavy traffic or in bad weather — you need to focus even more under hazardous conditions.
  • Do not take notes or look up phone numbers while driving — enough said.
  • Keep conversations short. Inform the person you're calling that you are in a car, and hang up as soon as possible.
  • If possible, place calls when you are not moving. Pull over where possible.
  • Ask a passenger to help. Have someone else make or take the call.
  • Do not engage in stressful or emotional conversations — leave the child support conversations for the home phone

What About Hands-Free Phones?

One would think that using a hands-free phone would solve the problem. It leaves you with two hands on the wheel, right? Not necessarily. Most hands-free users are using some form of headphone or earphone. These often ill-fitting devices have frequent volume problems and can themselves be a source of distraction. The IIHS reported that a driver's likelihood of getting in an accident increases fourfold when talking on a wireless phone, whether handheld or hands-free. The NHTSA researched whether using phones hands-free makes a difference; it actually had to change its "test headphone" from an earclip design to a headband-style design (which runs over the crown of the head) to assure that test-drivers wouldn't have to use their hands to repeatedly adjust the earclips. The study found that drivers typically favored hands-free and voice-dialing options over holding the phone, and typically found these setups easier to use.

There are several hands-free options that make more sense, eliminating the need for a headphone by running voice calls through your car's speakers.

Additionally, an increasing number of cell phones and vehicles are equipped with Bluetooth technology. This allows you to have your phone anywhere in your car (even the trunk!) and still make and receive calls. You'll hear the calls through the speakers, and your voice will be transmitted through the car's built-in microphone. Bluetooth-enabled cars are equipped with voice recognition technology, such that you can make and receive phone calls without having to touch any buttons on the phone.

If Bluetooth is not an option, you can get similar functionality through Verizon Wireless and the OnStar in-car communications system. A subscriber to the America's Choice with OnStar plan can transfer incoming calls that would normally ring on the handset to the vehicle, allowing for hands-free, voice-activated dialing. See the Verizon Wireless site for a list of vehicles and requirements.

What may come as an interesting surprise is that, even if a cell phone is being used completely hands-free, the risk of having an accident doesn't seem to be reduced. Apparently, the act of conversing on the phone — not holding the phone to your ear — is the more dangerous distraction. Emotional conversations in particular seem to elevate risk. So hands-free or not, there's an increased risk to DWY.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people are using hands-free devices. Most of the research has been performed by looking at phone bill records at the time of the accident. But according to the IIHS there is enough data to suggest that although hands-free phones eliminate the physical distraction of handling phones, the cognitive distraction still remains.

NHTSA's 2005 study on wireless phone interfaces showed that while participants had a tougher time steering with a hand held phone, it also made calls the fastest and had less dialing errors than a hands free unit. Our resistance to grasp this wireless technology may lead to slow adoption rates. Even in states or localities where cell phones are banned, there is a serious problem with compliance.

The IIHS's study adds that "...even if total compliance with bans on drivers' hand-held cell phone use can be achieved, crash risk will remain to the extent that drivers continue to use or switch to hands-free phones."

We agree that wireless technology is terrific, but just because it seems to be everywhere doesn't mean you have to use it everywhere. You never know: The most important call of your life could be the one you never make.


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