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Data pops car 'cell peril' tale

2013-08-13 10:53

DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION: Research suggests that using a cellphone behind the wheel might not be as dangerous as previously thought. Image: AFP

LONDON, England - For decades it’s been widely believed that using a cellphone behind the wheel is dangerous and causes crashes. Research suggests this might not be the case - in fact says it isn't. No, chill and read on...

Research by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that speaking on a cellphone while driving does not increase crash risk and has the data to prove it.

Researchers collected data from mobile network operators and crash reports and found “no direct correlation between the number of phone calls made during a certain period and the number of crashes in that period".


According to the UK's Daily Mail, the researchers in Pennsylvania, USA and London compared crash rates in nine US states with the number of calls. The findings contradict those published in a 1997 academic paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded using a phone at the wheel “increased the crash risk by a factor of 4.3” - the same level as driving while intoxicated.

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 a greater 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.”

Research from the American Automobile Association's Foundation has also questioned conventional wisdom, stating that a hands-free kit can cause "extensive risk" to drivers and pedestrians and “may be no safer than holding a cellphone while driving".

The research found that distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, reports the Daily Mail. The findings found that, as mental workload and distractions increased, reaction times slowed and brain function diminished.

Bhargava and the London School of Economics and Political Science's Vikram Pathania examined cellphone and crash data from 2002 - 2005. During those three years phone operators began offering price plans that included free calls on weekdays after 9pm.


According to the study: “We investigated the causal link between cellphone use and crash rates by exploiting a natural experiment induced by the 9pm price discontinuity that characterises a majority of recent cellular plans.

“We first documented a 7.2% jump in driver call likelihood at the 9pm threshold. Using a prior period as a comparison, we documented no corresponding change in the relative crash rate. Our estimates imply an upper boundary in the crash risk odds ratio of 3.0, which rejects the 4.3 asserted by Redelmeier and Tibshirani (1997).”

The research found that cellphone use by drivers after 9pm had no effect on crash statistics. Additionally, the researchers analysed the effects of legislation banning cellphone use while driving and found that the legislation had no effect on the crash rate.


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."

Pathania said: "Our study focused solely on talking. We did not, for example, analyse 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."

The findings were published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

What do you think of the researchers’ findings? Do you agree? Email us and we’ll publish your thoughts on Wheels24.

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