Hands-free cell phones still risky


POSTED: Thursday, July 23, 2009

Honolulu joined other local governments last month in banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, creating the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe while behind the wheel. Shown to have withheld evidence from the public during the Bush administration about the danger of driving while using a cell phone, the National Highway Safety Administration should come clean six years late.

As the July 1 ban approached, we warned that motorists using a Bluetooth headset or other hands-free device not be led to think they are safe from the danger of distraction. Research has shown hands-free is as dangerous as hand-held, equivalent to driving with a .08 blood alcohol content.

A study published 12 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine arrived at that assessment. Eight years ago, two researchers at the University of Utah found that the distraction comes from conversing on the cell phones, not handling them.

In a story published in this section yesterday, The New York Times reported that documents released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit showed that the Highway Safety Administration decided not to make public research and warnings about using a phone while driving, in part, officials said, because of concerns about angering Congress.

The documents confirm a report last October in Mother Jones magazine and noted at that time in this space that federal transportation officials drafted a letter in 2003 for then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to send to governors. The letter, which Mineta says he never saw, would have warned governors that banning hand-held cell phones while driving “;may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use.”;

Jeffrey Runge, then head of the highway safety agency, told the Times that his “;advisers upstairs”; warned against angering members of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls the agency's funding. He told Mother Jones that the decision not to send the letter was made “;above my pay grade.”;

In a recent letter to the editor, City Councilman Gary Okino, chairman of the Council's transportation committee, wrote that “;common sense and research indicate that taking your eyes off the road for even a few seconds (to dial a number or see who is calling) is even more dangerous”; than “;simply talking on a cell phone while driving.”; Actually, dialing must be performed by hand on both hand-held and hands-free cell phones.

Research has concluded that the distraction comes not from a motorist briefly taking his or her eyes off the road but from the diversion of a driver's attention “;to an engaging cognitive context other than the one immediately associated with driving.”; It is why a driver on a cell phone appears to other motorists to be in another zone.

Okino says the Council can consider broader restriction “;with time.”; Unfortunately, with time come increased fatalities caused by cell-phone use by drivers — 955 nationwide in 2002, according to the highway safety agency, and undoubtedly more often now as cell-phone use has increased.