Ominously, research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — suppressed for years and released on Tuesday after petitions were filed by advocacy groups — shows that there are “negligible differences” in accident risk whether you’re holding the phone or not. Hands-free devices may even enhance the danger by lulling you into complacency. It is the conversation that pulls focus.
Studies show that drivers who talk on cellphones are four times more likely to be in a crash and drive just as erratically as people with an 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level.
In one study cited by the highway safety agency, “drivers found it easier to drive drunk than to drive while using a phone, even when it was hands-free.”
The agency buried its head in the sand, keeping the research to itself for years and ignoring the fact that soon nearly all Americans would own cellphones and that the phones are always getting smarter and more demanding, putting a multimedia empire at your fingertips while you’re piloting a potentially lethal piece of artillery.
Americans are so addicted to techno-surfing that they’ve gotten hubristic about how many machines they can juggle simultaneously. One reporter I know recently filed a story from his laptop while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Americans woke up one day to find that they were don’t-miss-a-moment addicts who feel compelled to respond to all messages immediately.
It explains why Christopher Hill, a 21-year-old from Oklahoma who killed a woman last September when he ran a red light while on his cellphone and rammed into her S.U.V., tried to keep dialing and driving with a headset his mother gave him two months after the accident.
Left, literally, to our own devices, we spiral out of control. States should outlaw drivers from talking on phones — except in an emergency — and using digital devices that cause you to drift and swerve; or at least mandate a $10,000 fine for getting in an accident while phoning or Twittering.
Auto companies are busy creating new crack hits for our self-destructive cravings. Ford is developing a system that would let drivers use phones and music players and surf the Internet with voice commands and audible responses.
Sounds like a computerized death machine. But, as our dealers know, we’ll never disconnect.