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Cell Phones and Police Agencies

Cellular technology has revolutionized the way and the speed at which we communicate. From just 500,000 U.S. mobile phone users in 1985 to 65 million in 1998 to 149 million in 2003, cellular phone use is everywhere. 

One place that cell phones are often used is in vehicles by those driving. How extensive is the distraction to a driver caused by a cell phone conversation? One leading researcher says that cell phone use while driving can cause “inattentive blindness.”  

A survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 73% of drivers reported using cell phones while driving. A December 2002 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis on cell phone use while driving estimates that the use of cell phones by drivers may result in 2,600 deaths, 330,000 moderate to critical injuries, and 1.5 million instances of property damage in America per year. 

Cell phone use presents particular challenges for police agencies from both safety and fiscal perspectives. In addition, states, legislatures, researchers and others are now calling on police to be more diligent when reporting and investigating crashes to determine whether cell phone use or other distractions were factors in crashes.


The urge to use a cell phone while driving has become irresistible for many people, including the motorcycle officer holding a cell phone between his ear and shoulder as he negotiates traffic.  NHTSA estimates that driver inattention or distraction is the cause of some 30% crashes overall or 1.2 million crashes a year. Exactly which distractions— phone, food, passengers, music, grooming, etc.— cause the most distraction is hotly debated.

Added driving distractions caused by cell phone use must be taken seriously, particularly since the rate of crashes for officers is higher than that of the general public. Not only do dialing and answering a phone affect driving, research by Dr. David Strayer and his associates from the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah found that those engaged in cell phone conversations while driving missed twice as many simulated traffic signals and took longer to react to signals they did detect.

While policies and laws allow hands-free phone equipment use by drivers, research shows that the negative effects of cell phone use are the same for drivers using both hand-held and hands-free cell phones.  

The cost of providing cellular phone equipment and service to officers is another important consideration. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), postings on the IACP.Net chat board mainly include examples of policies that urge cell phone use judiciously.  Officers are directed to use cell phones as a supplement to radio communication; to use for important calls that might require more privacy than two-way radio can offer; and to limit calls to short, business use only.   

Getting a driver to admit that he was involved in a phone conversation at the time of the crash is difficult, but officers need to make every effort to determine during initial reporting and crash investigation whether distraction was a significant crash factor, and if so, the specific type of distraction. Researchers need reliable data to determine how many crashes are caused by distractions, including cell phone distractions. Without reliable data, lawmakers and other policy makers hesitate to develop policy consideration and new legislation.

The Wisconsin State Patrol recently issued results from a 2002 survey where officers asked drivers involved in crashes if they were using a cell phone at the time of the crash. Of 2,691 crashes (four percent of the total crashes for the state during the five-month survey period), drivers in only 24 crashes reported that they were using a cell phone (hand-held or hands-free) and that the phone was a possible contributing factor in the crash. 

Another 25 drivers reported that they were using a cell phone at the time of the crash, but it was not a possible contributing factor. The survey was done at the request of the Wisconsin Legislature, and the Patrol acknowledged that the survey was not large enough to make a determination whether cell phone use is a major contributing factor in crashes.

NTSB Urges Limits for Inexperienced Drivers

In August 2003, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a recommendation for states to adopt laws prohibiting inexperienced drivers, those holding learner’s permits and intermediate licenses, from using cell phones while driving. The NTSB’s recommendations were based on the Board’s investigation of a three-vehicle crash that occurred on Interstate 95/495 near Largo, MD, in February 2002. 

According to the NTSB report, the crash was caused by a 20-year-old driver whose vehicle was traveling at an estimated speed of 70 to 75 mph. The vehicle veered off the left side of the roadway, crossed over the median, climbed up a guardrail, flipped over, and landed on top of a southbound minivan. Subsequently, another vehicle ran into the minivan. Five of eight passengers were fatally injured. 

The NTSB report concludes that: “The crash driver’s distraction due to the wireless telephone conversation with her friend contributed to her loss of control of the vehicle.” Several safety issues were also identified in this crash: the crash driver’s speed, operating inexperience, and unfamiliarity with the vehicle; the need for technology to aid vehicle stability; and the adequacy of the existing barrier system.


In the last three years, all 50 states have considered legislation related to cell phones and driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Currently, laws in many states allow officers to issue citations for inattentive driving. New York is the only state to prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving. Maine and New Jersey prohibit drivers under the age of 21 who only have a learner’s or instructional permit from using any type of cell phone while driving. 

As of August 2003, 17 states have passed laws regarding cell phones and driving or distracted driving, including prohibitions against school bus drivers from using phones while driving, requirements that drivers have one hand on the steering wheel, and requirements that head sets only cover one ear. 

Several states have pre-empted local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions on cell phones while driving. In addition, at least 17 states now have laws requiring consideration of distractions for crash data collection. Seven countries restrict or prohibit cell phone use while driving: England, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, Israel, Italy and Republic of Singapore.

According to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, hand-held cell phone use by drivers in New York dropped by 50% three months after New York’s law took effect in November 2001, thanks in part to the intensive media coverage of the legislation. However, by March of 2003 usage had returned to where it was before the law passed. 

Some 144,000 citations for hand-held cell phone use by drivers have been issued by New York enforcement agencies since the law became effective, about two percent of all citations issued.  “We frequently hear from people who think the law should be more aggressively enforced,” Maj. John W. Van Steenburg, Director of Traffic Services for the New York State Police, said. “We certainly don’t turn a blind eye. When we see a violation, we enforce the law as we do for those who speed, run stop signs, and don’t buckle up. We may need more innovative ways to enforce the cell phone law.”

A March 2003 telephone survey by the Gallup Organization for NHTSA to study attitudes and behaviors by vehicle occupants found 67% of respondents supported insurance penalties for being involved in a crash while using a cell phone; 61% supported double or triple fines for traffic violations involving cell phone use; and 57% were in favor of a ban on all wireless phone use while a car is moving (except for 911 calls). When asked what behaviors of other drivers threaten safety, 52% of respondents believed that the use of cell phones by other drivers were a major threat to their personal safety.

Janet Dewey-Kollen is a traffic safety consultant and freelance writer. She is the former director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign and is a certified child passenger safety technician. Janet can be reached at or at (225) 445-0227.



New Crash Report Language

Driver distractions is one new element included in the new edition of the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria Guideline, 2003 (MMUCC), a guideline used by states to develop crash reports. The language for this data element is for the driver who is:

• Not Distracted

• Distract by an:
        •Electronic communication device (cell phone, pager)

                •Other electronic communication device (navigation device, palm pilot)

                •Other distraction inside the vehicle (radio, another passenger, etc.)

                •Object outside the vehicle (road sign, another vehicle, etc.)

Reference: MMUCC 2003 2nd Edition (

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2004

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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