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Cell Phones and Distraction: Let's Be Honest

September 2001, by Steve Elliott, Executive Editor

Back in May, the American Automobile Association (AAA) issued a press release citing a national study which indicated cell phones are low on the list of distractions for drivers involved in accidents between 1995 and 1999.

According to AAA's press release, 12.5 percent of auto accidents are caused by driver distraction, and only 1.5 percent of drivers involved in those accidents said they were using a cell phone at the time of the crash.

Opponents of legislation restricting cell phone usage in automobiles quickly seized upon the results, using them in the ongoing lively debate.

And the release, of course, got extensive attention in the national media for its surprising results -- but there are some things that were missing.

'Gross Misrepresentation'
Critics of the study say the data may not be dependable, because for obvious reasons many drivers will not admit they were talking on a phone at the time of a crash.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, cohosts of the radio show Car Talk, have said the AAA press release "is based on flawed research and is a gross misrepresentation of reality."

"Be honest," said Ray Magliozzi. "How many people are going to say, 'Yes, officer, I was ordering Chinese food on my cell phone when I crashed into that family in the Taurus'? It's just not going to happen."

Even the organization that conducted the study for AAA, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), says that distracted driving was underreported in the data. The study's authors, the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center, noted the database they used "underestimates the role of driver inattention and distraction in crashes."

"I find AAA's release of the UNC study on 'The Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes' deeply troubling," said Dr. Kevin Clancy, chairman and CEO of Copernicus Marketing Consulting and research professor at Boston University. "To misrepresent findings based on limited data is, simply put, grossly irresponsible."

AAA Not a Disinterested Observer
AAA, despite its posturing about looking out for driver safety, isn't exactly what you would call a disinterested observer -- it's in the business of selling cell phones, according to Car Talk spokesman Doug Mayer.

"We really think AAA did all of us a disservice by publicizing some pretty lousy research," Mayer told Business Fleet. "Since then, we've also discovered that AAA has sold nearly 1 million cell phones to its members over the last 10 years, making them one of the largest retailers of phones!"

Consumers Share Concerns
At any given time, about half a million people, or 3 percent of drivers, are talking on a hand-held cell phone while behind the wheel, according to a NHTSA study.

Consumers are voicing concerns about driver distractions associated with dialing a cell phone, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2001 Automotive Emerging Technologies Study. "About two-thirds of drivers consider dialing a cell phone to be very distracting," said Jeff Taylor, senior manager at Power.

A survey conducted for the Insurance Research Council by Roper Starch Worldwide found that 91 percent of those surveyed believed talking on a cell phone while driving distracts drivers and increases the chance of accidents. Sixty-nine percent said they favored bans on talking on a cell phone while driving, similar to the legislation recently passed in New York state.

Light, Not Heat
The growing public debate over cell phones and their safety, or lack thereof, needs more light and less heat. Flawed and misleading research, especially when it supports an agenda -- and is released by a group in the business of selling cell phones -- is not helpful and is, in fact, irresponsible.
AAA should apologize to its members and to the driving public at large.

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