A Plea Against Hands-Free Cell Phone Devices

My cousin wrote a letter to me and 50 friends recently. Here are some excerpts (bolding is mine):

As many of you are already aware, [we] were in a car accident a few weeks ago.  We were hit by a young woman who ran a red light.  We feel so blessed and are so thankful that we were not seriously hurt…

We received a copy of the police report in the mail and it confirmed what [we] had suspected.  It noted that the other driver admitted to being distracted while talking on her cell phone, causing her to run the red light, and hit us as we proceeded through the intersection…

[Our oldest daughter], I might add, is outraged by the fact that the driver was on her cell phone and put us in such danger.  She has already emailed our local congresswoman, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, to ask for legislature to ban the use of cell phones while driving (or at least allowing only the use of hands-free devices).

But, for now, please consider avoiding using your cell phone while driving or, at the very least, minimize your use.

Here was my reply:

I’m so very happy that no one in the family was seriously injured! Thank you very much for writing about it.

I read some articles in the newspaper and did some followup research. It turns out that using a hands-free cell phone in a car is not safer than using a handset.

Making a hands-free cell phone law is like making a beer-only drinking and driving law. Everyone knows that it doesn’t matter whether you drink beer or wine or whiskey, the result is the same. You get drunk and are dangerous behind the wheel of a car. In exactly the same way, using a hands-free cell phone is just as dangerous as using a handset.

I hope you don’t feel I’m too long-winded about this but I think it’s important. Very important. Lives are on the line. The lives of my loved ones like YOU!

The problem isn’t that drivers are distracted holding the handset up to their ear. People are distracted by having a conversation with someone that isn’t in the car with them. I can understand that. When I am driving and on the cell phone, the other person will talk to me even if I’m in a dangerous intersection or an on-ramp, or in the rain. They can’t see what’s going on. But a passenger in the car will stay quiet and not bother the driver if they see something potentially dangerous.

As for using 1 hand, people in manual transmission cars are busy shifting with one hand all the time. And no one is calling for a ban on manual transmission cars. Every car has a radio with buttons and knobs that drivers are pushing all the time.

Please please please. Don’t ask for a hands-free cell phone law. It doesn’t protect ANYONE. If you want to protect people, demand that cell phones not be used AT ALL while driving!

Likewise, if you think that it’s too much to ask that people not use cell phones while driving, then you and I just have to accept the risks that go along with it.

Through all of this, I think the best advice for all of us isn’t to make any new laws but to do exactly what you suggested in your email, “please consider avoiding using your cell phone while driving or, at the very least, minimize your use.”

Every day over 100 people are killed in car crashes in America. That’s over 40,000 people every year! This doesn’t usually make the news for 2 reasons:

First, about the same number of have been dying in cars every year for the last 80 years. Yes, MILLIONS of people have been killed in car accidents. But it’s old news.

Second, on average, 1 person is killed for every 100 million miles driven. Put another way, on average you’d be in a fatal car accident if you drove round-trip from Nashville to San Francisco (a 3 day trip, non-stop) about 20 thousand times. That’s a LOT of driving! Driving is relatively safe compared to a lot of other things.

Sam, you wrote to your congresswoman asking “to ban the use of cell phones while driving (or at least allowing only the use of hands-free devices).” The problem with congress is that they listen to us! Your congresswoman wants to do the will of the people. It’s not her job to read traffic accident studies. She will listen to you. And if she does what you asked her to, she could easily make a law that might make you FEEL better, it won’t make you ACTUALLY SAFER. And I know that what you really want is to BE safer.

There are unintended consequence of making a hands-free cell phone law. It means the police will spend their time stopping cell phone users instead of real criminals. It means people will feel safer without being safer, which sounds downright criminal.

Here is a really good article from the New York Times that talks about this subject. I highly recommend you read it: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/health/13well.html
Fox News has a similar article: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,479186,00.html
MSNBC has a similar article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28609580/

The National Safety Council has lots of statistics and articles. Here’s a good article about it: 2008 Traffic Deaths Hit Record Low, Says National Safety Council

And here’s another article: Cell Phone Statistics

I am very glad that you and the family weren’t seriously injured. To help everyone, I would urge you to write a second letter to your congresswoman. Tell her what you’ve learned and how hands-free cell phones don’t help.

Please tell me what you think and what you’re going to do!



  1. Garth says:

    Washington State passed a hands free law in the past 6 months. I am very thankful, but NO ONE observes that law, and the police cannot use that violation as the primary reason to effect a traffic stop.

    As a former prosecutor and former DUI defense attorney I was shocked to find studies that support speaking on the cell phone (without a hands free device) is more dangerous than driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level.

    The Federal government should mandate a hands free law or outright ban. Sorry to hear you were a victim of such negligence.


  2. lee says:

    Garth, if you know of any studies that indicate driving with a hands-free cell phone is safer than a handset, please point them out to me. I have never found any. Though I have found several studies and articles over the past 10 years showing that hands-free and handset cell phone use are just as dangerous.

    Looking closely at your comment, it seems that you didn’t read my post… or even the title of the post. So I’ll just assume your comment was generated by a comment-spam-bot.

  3. Bathes in milk says:

    Well researched, Lee. It is nice to know that some people do not have knee jerk reactions to the world around them. Being alive entails certain risks — it is part of living well to be able to come to terms with those risks. If I stayed at home all the time perhaps I would be safer, but probably not and life would be Booooorrring.

  4. Alexis says:

    Wait, we can make a beer-drinking only law? Sweet! Can I just drink the beer as I don’t own a car and still be in compliance!?

    Agreed, hands-free is bullsh*t and half-assed. Maybe half-bullsh*tted as well. Can’t we just emulate the French and say “no talking on phone while driving” and then, keeping with the French theme, just use the guillotine on offenders. (Especially the ones turning right in front of my bike on Valencia…)

  5. RIDLPrez says:

    Here’s an excerpt from a study performed by the AAA Foundation:

    “One legitimate question might be to what extent the distractions from casual and complex conversations are truly a cellular phone problem. While placing a call is a phone-specific task, the carrying on of conversations is not. Under the “hands off type of cellular phone simulated in the present study, conversations were really no different from those that might be carried on with another passenger.”

  6. Alexis says:

    I think a key difference between an in-car conversation partner and one on the phone is that the in-car person can see when there’s some issue that requires the driver’s total attention (pedestrian darting in front of the car, double-parked vehicle suddenly pulling out, etc) and adjust the conversation accordingly. Someone on the phone is less in tune and the driver is therefore less inclined to “release” them from conversation lest they appear rude.

  7. lee says:

    RIDLPrez, it looks like this is the study you are quoting, done in 1991. In 1991 there were very few cell phones and no hands/hands-free debate. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t compare hands-free cell phone use to hands-on cell phone use. With that, I don’t understand how their study relates directly to this discussion. Could you expound?

  8. Ian Jones says:

    I have never understood why hands free cell phones are deemed to be so much safer than regular cells. Alexis, I think you make a key point when you say that someone on the phone is ‘less in tune’ and I believe this to be the case whether they are holding the device or otherwise. The fact is that their full attention is not directed towards the road, and this presents a major hazard to themselves and other drivers. Safe driving demands your cognitive function to be at its highest; I believe that anything that compromises this should be prohibited.

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