Sending Mixed Messages

When Pam Fischer sees motorists holding a cell phone while driving, she doesn't hesitate to pull up alongside, roll down her window and inform them...

When Pam Fischer sees motorists holding a cell phone while driving, she doesn't hesitate to pull up alongside, roll down her window and inform them that they're breaking the law. Fischer is the director of traffic safety in New Jersey, a state that permits drivers to talk on cell phones only with the aid of a hands-free device. Yet even when someone brags to Fischer that they jabber by Bluetooth, she speaks her mind. "You shouldn't be talking on a cell phone at all," she'll tell them. "Whether it's hand-held or hands-free, you are distracted. We know that. The research is clear."

Over the past several years, research indeed has become convincing about the dangers of talking on a cell phone, whether drivers use their hands to do it or not. But while 29 states have passed some kind of limit on cell-phone use--singling out teenagers, bus drivers or texting-while-driving, for example--none has gone so far as to enact a total ban on drivers' phone conversations. The strictest approach so far is the one New Jersey, four other states and the District of Columbia have taken: banning the hand-held cell phones.

Recent studies suggest that states may want to re-think their approach. The original rationale for hands-free laws was that the danger came from driving with only one hand on the wheel, particularly while dialing. What studies have found, however, is that the phone conversation itself is a distraction. In 2006, researchers at the University of Utah published a study that used a driving simulator. They found no difference in driving performance between people using hand-held and hands-free phones. Talking on a phone in either manner made drivers more likely to get into a rear-end collision than those who were legally drunk.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008 used brain imaging to look at what happens when drivers talk on the phone. Researchers found that simply listening to a cell phone conversation reduces the amount of brain activity used for driving by 37 percent. Still another study, from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, placed cameras inside 100 cars. Although the study didn't directly measure the risks of hand-held versus hands-free, it found that merely dialing a cell phone tripled the risk of getting into an accident. Just talking on a phone was distracting enough to increase the risk of having an accident by a factor of 1.3.

These findings suggest that while hands-free laws have raised awareness among drivers, they probably haven't made the roads much safer. Anne McCartt, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says these laws might give drivers a false sense of security. "A law that doesn't also cover hands-free phones," she says, "can send the message that talking on a hands-free phone is safe. And it's not."

Why does this dual treatment continue? The best explanation is a rather disturbing one: Many drivers, state legislators among them, have simply come to depend on using cell phones during drive time to take care of business, check in with spouses or catch up with friends. This may make long commutes more professionally and socially productive. But it also makes the roads more dangerous for everybody. "We get in our habits," says Meredith Morris of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group. "Many people have made talking on cell phones a regular part of life. It's hard to give up something that we've accepted as routine."

There are other problems with cell-phone laws as they've been written in most states. Bans on cell-phone use by teenage drivers, for example, are difficult to enforce. From a distance, it can be hard for police officers to guess who is a teenager and who isn't. Laws against texting-while-driving pose a similar problem, to the extent that drivers may keep their phones on their laps where officers can't see them. What's more, it's almost impossible to say for sure whether the laws are having the intended impact. That's because nearly all data on crashes rely on motorists telling the truth about whether or not they were on the phone at the time of an accident.

And so the evidence on this particular point is ambiguous.Immediately after New York passed its hand-held ban, the number of drivers observed talking on a hand-held phone dropped by about half, says McCartt, who conducted a study on compliance with the law. But one year later, that gain was gone and drivers were back on their hand-helds in roughly the same numbers as before. In North Carolina, which banned teenage drivers from talking on cell phones in 2006, a similar study found more of them on their phones after the law passed than before.

A more positive outcome occurred in Washington, D.C. There, the number of drivers talking on a hand-held phone dropped by about half and stayed that way a year after a hand-held ban passed. McCartt attributes D.C.'s compliance rate to a more concentrated enforcement effort: D.C. issued tickets to a higher percentage of its residents than New York or North Carolina. "Passing laws is just the first step when it comes to highway safety," says McCartt, noting that states got similarly mixed results at first with seatbelt laws. "Drivers need to believe the law is enforced. There needs to be a consequence."

Politically, cracking down seems more feasible now than it used to be. The wireless industry, which historically has opposed hand-held bans, changed its position in January. It is now neutral on the question. The switch was "not based on scientific data," says John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the Wireless Association. "We still think that you can responsibly make or take a brief phone call and that there's an appropriate time to do so and an inappropriate time to do so."

Another advocacy group that recently changed its position is the National Safety Council, which now wants a total ban on cell-phone use by all drivers, period. That position will be a tough sell in state legislatures, which is why the group isn't stopping its efforts there. The NSC publicly praises Nationwide Insurance for offering discounts to customers who have a device that automatically cuts off calls while their vehicle is in motion. It also encourages businesses to ban employees from using cell phones while driving on company time.

In New Jersey, Fischer thinks the current state law banning hand-held phones is a good start. Since February of last year, the law has been enforceable as a primary offense, meaning police can pull over a motorist solely because they spot her talking on a hand-held phone. Since that time, the number of tickets written for this violation has increased by 800 percent. In March, Fischer spearheaded an enforcement campaign that gave 18 local police departments $4,000 each to crack down on drivers breaking the cell-phone law. The campaign yielded more than 4,000 tickets.

Stepped-up enforcement is just the beginning of a "social norming" process, Fischer says. She thinks attitudes toward cell-phone use behind the wheel can change in much the same way that a multi-decade effort turned drunk driving into socially unacceptable behavior. That's where her one-woman campaign to chew out drivers comes in. And it's where education becomes just as important as legislation. When local media picked up on Fischer's enforcement campaign, they almost always noted her name for it.

It was called "Hang Up! Just Drive."

Anya Sostek was a GOVERNING correspondent