Cell Phones in Cars: A Rare Case for Regulation

by on July 15, 2005

Cell phones are not nearly as dangerous as people think. There’s no evidence they cause cancer. They do not cause gas pumps to explode. And they are not unsafe on airplanes. (See Adam’s excellent piece on that below). Time and again, wireless telephony, like other new technologies, has been the victim of an overactive culture of fear. Yet, there’s one area where the critics seem to have it right: cellphones and driving don’t mix. New evidence for this came out in an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study published in the British Medical Journal this week.

The study found that drivers using cellphones were four times more likely to be in injury-causing accidents than drivers not using cellphones. This is no surprise–as regular commuters know, that car in front of them weaving, stopping abruptly or just moving dangerously slow pretty likely has a phone-chatting driver. (And I include myself in the mix–I’ve had my share of near-miss cellphone experiences). Surprisingly, the study also found that hands-free driving was dangerous too. That goes against conventional wisdom (most existing state bans exempt hands free use).

Importantly, chatting drivers don’t just endanger themselves–they endanger others around them. For that reason, this is a (rare) case where regulation seems justified. If there’s any role for government regulation, its to protect individuals from the dangerous actions of others. While cellphone bans are no panacea (New York cellphone use in cars is still at pre-ban levels), they seem a step in the right direction. Just as your right to wave your fist stops at my nose, your right to chat while driving stops at my bumper.

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