A Scientific Argument for Cell-Phone Ban for Drivers

You’ve probably heard by now that the NTSB has recommended that states forbid drivers to use cell phones, whether hands-free or not. Here is a good AP article by Joan Lowy about what is known and not known about phone risk. She makes the excellent point that it’s harder to argue for a ban when highway fatalities keep falling — but that a falling death rate hardly means that cell phone use isn’t dangerous. (Off-topic but not too dissimilar: Americans are losing their taste for the death penalty, theoretically because it’s sometimes applied so haphazardly — but in truth it’s a lot easier to argue against the death penalty when the murder rate has fallen as dramatically as it has.)

In the AP article, Marcel Just of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon, puts in words why phones may cause a particular risk of distraction:

“When someone is speaking your native language, you can’t will yourself to not hear and process it. It just goes in,” Just said. Even if a driver tries to ignore the words, scientists “can see activation in the auditory cortex, in the language areas (of the brain). “

This would also explain why hearing someone else’s cell-phone chatter in public is more annoying than it ought to be.


By this logic, shouldn't we outlaw car radios and cd players?


And talking to the guy in the passenger seat.


Also, we should outlaw carrying on any kind of conversation with passengers in your car.

The article from CNN says that this applies to hands-free devices, but not to devices installed in the car by the manufacturer. Why the distinction? What is the difference there?

David Leppik

The distinction is that a passenger over the age of about 5 will stop talking when the driving gets difficult. The person on the other end of the phone can neither see the traffic/oncoming tree trunk nor notice the concentrated look on the driver's face.


I meant why the distinction between hands-free devices in general and those that were installed in the car by the manufacturer. (In the CNN article that was linked, it says that the former should be outlawed but not the latter.)


Don't know whether this should be filed under irony, hypocrisy, or willfull ignorance, but I find it amusing that the same people who claim they buy large, heavy SUVs and similar vehicles because of their supposed (but mostly illusory) safety are the same ones who want to keep unsafely yakking on their cell phones while driving them.

caleb b

We've done this before, but Sir Isaac Newton would declare that those larger vehicles ARE safer, for the driver of them.

Paul Kelly

Shouldn't you ban radios in cars then?

Steve Liesman

Isn't the economic argument more about perceived risks? It can't be a coincidence that distractions to driving have risen in concert with the rise of the safety equipment and safety of driving. Look at the modern automobile: there are dozens of distractions from the road. People feel safer taking the risk, so they take them. I would argue that had these gadgets existed 20 years ago, they would never have been allowed in cars, or if so, wouldn't have been used because the costs of screwing up were so great.


Taking this to its logical conclusion, you should ban radios, CD players AND forbid fellow passengers from talking to each other or to the driver as it results in distraction. Or maybe one needs to
1. ban multiseater vehicles
2. separate the driver's compartment from the passengers' compartment (like in NY Cabs) so the passengers cannot distract the driver


There is another question. How come professional drivers such as police drivers, and for that matter, pilots, manage intense conversation while they work? Do they have an increased accident rate? I would suggest it is possible to learn to process conversation in a way that does not distract. I doubt experience alone is enough. Radiotelephony skills are a significant part of a pilot's training.

caleb b

So ban all of the following:

CD Players
Talking to passengers
GPS Devices - they either talk or you need to look at them
Drive Through Food

Got it. OR we can recognize that the vast majority of fatal accidents are a combination of things that are mostly NOT connected to cell phones. In order Alcohol, Night, Weather, Excessive Speed. www.nhtsa.gov/

Thomas Lawson

Here in British Columbia, Canada, we have banned cellphones while driving. Two things have happened:

1) Accidents have decreased. (Though, tens of traffic circles were installed at about the same time as the ban went into effect, and those really cut into collision rates.)

2) People continue to hold cellphones to their ears. I see at least one person a day. People also continue to text while driving and, rather than holding the phone up so they can keep their peripheral vision on the road, they hold the phone below the dash to avoid being caught by the police, which forces them to take their eyes completely off the road. Not being able to concentrate while having a conversation is the least of our problems. When people are not even looking at the road ahead of them, we are in a heap of danger.


Then how come there are so many things my wife says she told me that I have no recollection of ever hearing?

Andreas Moser

I never answer my phone anyway: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/why-i-dont-answer-the-phone/


So, I guess there should be a ban on any passenger using a phone. Also a abn on talking to the driver. And to other passengers. And a ban on using the radio. Oh, and music, too. Hmm...