Cellphone use while driving doesn’t increase risk of crashing

Talking on the cell phone while driving is considered to be extremely dangerous as it supposedly increases the risk of having an accident.

However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science have found that cellphone use while driving doesn’t increase risk of crashing.

The finding, published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, used information from a cellphone provider to evaluate whether cellphone use is linked to an increased risk of crashing. A 1997 paper in the  New England Journal of Medicine reported that cellphone use while driving may be just as dangerous as drinking and driving.

Doubts may be raised about cellphone use while driving bans, which have been implemented in many states across the country.

Saurabh Bhargava, assistant professor of social and decision sciences in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said:

“Using a cellphone while driving may be distracting, but it does not lead to higher crash risk in the setting we examined. While our findings may strike many as counterintuitive, our results are precise enough to statistically call into question the effects typically found in the academic literature. Our study differs from most prior work in that it leverages a naturally occurring experiment in a real-world context.”

Bhargava and Vikram S. Pathania analyzed calling and crash data between 2002 and 2005 when a lot of cellphone carriers had plans which included free calls on weekdays after 9 in the evening.

The researchers were able to identify drivers because their calls were routed via more than one cellular tower. Driver call volume increased by over 7 percent at 9 p.m.

The team then compared the crash rate before and after 9 p.m. with data from more than 8 million crashes across the country.

The increased cellphone use after 9 p.m. did not have any effect on crash rates.

Legislation which banned cellphone use while driving, enacted in some states, had no effect on crash rate either.

Bhargava said:

“One thought is that drivers may compensate for the distraction of cellphone use by selectively deciding when to make a call or consciously driving more carefully during a call. This is one of a few explanations that could explain why laboratory studies have shown different results.”

He added:

“The implications for policymakers considering bans depend on what is actually driving this lack of an effect. For example, if drivers do compensate for distraction, then penalizing cellphone use as a secondary rather than a primary offense could make sense. In the least, this study and others like it, suggest we should revisit the presumption that talking on a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as widely perceived.”

Pathania, a fellow in the London School of Economics Managerial Economics and Strategy group, concluded:

“Our study focused solely on talking on one’s cellphone. We did not, for example, analyze the effects of texting or Internet browsing, which has become much more popular in recent years. It is certainly possible that these activities pose a real hazard.”