Challenging Dogma - Fall 2007

...Using the social and behavioral sciences to improve the practice of public health.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hand-held Cell Phone Driving Bans: Useless Legislation-Kirsten Meid

I. Introduction
In recent years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has leveled an increasing amount of concern against cell phone use while driving motor vehicles (1). Data collected has shown a rising trend in accidents with at least one driver using a cell phone (2). Some studies have indicated that the number of accidents attributable to cell phone use is comparable to driving drunk, or even greater (2). Accordingly, many cities and states have attempted to enact legislation to limit the use of cell phones while driving (3). Individual cities and counties have been more successful in passing legislation than states. Although 40 states have proposed cell phone bans, only six states—California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, and Washington-- have pushed these initiatives through the legislature (3). Other states have partial bans on cell phone use, such as for bus drivers or teen drivers (1,3).

A great majority of the successfully passed initiatives have banned hand-held cell phone use, while allowing the use of headsets (3). Only bus drivers and teen drivers face complete prohibition of cell phone use. The goal of such legislation is to limit peripheral distractions like dialing or holding the phone (4). Because these laws are in their infancy, their effect on accident prevention is not yet clear (5). However, there are several contentions that these types of initiatives will fail to promote a safer driving environment. These cell phone bans do not take into account attitudes towards safe driving and authority, or the attentional deficits caused by speaking on the phone.

II. Attribution and Attitudes
Civil laws like cell phone bans are met with controversy and lack of compliance (5). The decision to use a cell phone while driving is not a moral dilemma. Cell phone bans are based upon the Health Belief Model, which explains human behavior by weighing several factors (6). Perceived susceptibility, severity, barriers, and benefits are all pieces of the Health Belief Model that are weighed against each other (6). In the cell phone laws, perceived susceptibility is the belief that using a cell phone while driving is dangerous, and that the chance of being caught is high. Perceived severity refers to seriousness of an accident or being ticketed (6). Perceived barriers to complying with the law include convenience and necessity of phone use. Perceived benefits include the positive outcomes of not using the phone, such as driving more safely. All of these pieces are analyzed and weighed, leading to an intention to comply with the law. However, this model does not account for many social and cognitive factors (6). Individuals often believe that there is little risk associated with their cell phone use while driving (7).

When individuals observe and analyze the events going on around them, they make attributions about how and why the events occurred (8). Systematic use of attribution explains how people can believe that they do not need to comply with cell phone driving bans, while other people should (8,9). The guidelines people use to make conclusions about what they have observed are different for themselves than for others. The first type of attributions individuals use is internal, or dispositional. Internal attributions presume that people’s actions result from intrinsic, stable characteristics. External attributions, on the other hand, ascribe external chance events to how a person behaved (8).

Because drawing conclusions about the cause of events depends upon how people perceive situations, the process of making attributions is subjective and open to errors. The actor/observer difference describes the tendency for people to show positive bias in attribution towards their behavior compared with other people’s behavior (8, 10). People attribute their own actions to external cues, blaming outside events, while assuming internal cues shape others’ actions (8,10,11). Self-serving bias describes the propensity for people to attribute their successes to internal causes, and their failures to situational causes (8,11). Using self-serving bias and the actor/observer difference, individuals believe that their successful driving records can be attributed to their driving prowess, while any misfortunes are caused by events beyond their control (9). In contrast, other people’s mishaps can be traced to their poor driving ability; the circumstances surrounding an accident have no bearing (10). Evidence to the contrary, for oneself or for others, is overlooked and reduced in importance. This mindset gives an individual a certain feeling of invincibility—they can do no wrong (8,10,11).

The overwhelming belief in the superiority of personal driving abilities leads individuals to regard cell phone use as perfectly safe (7,8). In a survey by Prevention Magazine, only 18 percent of respondents believed that their use of cell phones while driving was distracting (1). People believe that others, who are already at a disadvantage due to their substandard driving ability, put themselves and others at more risk by using cell phones while driving, while they do not (7). Positive self-attributions cause people to perceive little danger in cell phone use (10,11). One of the major tenants of cell phone bans, perceived risk of cell phone usage, is not there.

III. Obedience
The other problem using the Health Behavior Model for cell phone bans is that the perceived susceptibility of getting caught using a cell phone while driving may not be compelling (6). The ban assumes both that people will obey the new law because of the risk of getting in an accident, and because they fear being caught by the police. However, other restrictions on driving, like speed limits, are often not obeyed, despite the possibility of being pulled-over and ticketed (9). Drivers are more likely to defy restrictions until they perceive a risk of being caught (12,13).

Social psychology explains the reasons behind the drivers’ disobedience of authority figures (12). Obedience is the response of individuals to a command, order, or demand from an authority figure. Proximity of the authority figure, disagreement between authority figures, legitimacy, and defiance by peers are all significant influences on obedience. Varying even one factor affects the likelihood and degree of obedience (12).

First, the law and the enforcement rules would need to be viewed as legitimate. Enforcement can be either primary or secondary, and of the localities and states with bans in place, half are under secondary enforcement and the other half are under primary enforcement (3). Primary enforcement means that individuals can be pulled over by police for using a hand-held cell phone. Secondary enforcement, on the other hand, requires another offense in order to pull over an individual; a person cannot be pulled-over merely for using a hand-held phone (3). Before seat belt laws were changed to primary enforcement, not using seat belts was much more rampant. Injury statistics have been compiled and compared in states that had secondary enforcement compared to primary enforcement states (5, 14). The results indicated that the prevalence of seat belt use was much higher in primary enforcement states than in secondary enforcement states. Secondary enforcement is not viewed as a legitimate ban (14, 15, 16). It did not encourage seat belt usage, and it is not a deterrent to hand-held cell phone use.

Secondly, contradictory instructions, or laws, by authority figures lead to less acquiescence (12). In this case, different requirements across states and localities undermine the authority of the law. Only a handful of states ban hand-held phone use, while another handful prohibit the banning of hand-held cell phone use (3). Though a region either has or does not have a ban, the ongoing controversy will reduce the likelihood of obedience because the necessity of a ban will be called into question (12). Additionally, there could be confusion over whether there is a ban in place in a specific place or not, especially for travelers or new residents. A study in Greece on perceived influences on speeding likelihood indicated that one of the greatest contributors was unreliability of speed limits (9). Incongruous laws and restrictions made violations more likely and more socially acceptable (5,9).

Another essential influence on obedience is defiance by peers. People are more likely to break the law, whether it is talking on cell phones, or driving above the speed limit, if they observe others taking the same risks (9, 12). This could be attributed to defiance or conformity, which is the result of group pressure. If everyone else is driving above the speed limit, individuals are more likely to exceed the speed limit (9,13). Observation of others using hand-held phones may not encourage individuals to make a call, but may confirm the social acceptability of such an action. Open defiance by a group may also instill a false sense of security because not everyone can be pulled-over and ticketed.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the proximity of the authority figure, the police, on the likelihood of obedience (5). There is little risk for being caught on the phone if there is no authority figure near. Without a visible authority figure, compliance with the cell phone ban will be minimal (12,13,17,). An intervention in Norway recorded substantial decreases in average speed after increasing the police presence and enforcement of traffic laws over a specific stretch of highway (17). If authority figures are visible, compliance with the law will be very high. When police presence is perceptible, people are vigilant about observing traffic laws. Without primary enforcement laws and visible police presence, cell phone bans will do little to curb cell phone usage.

IV. Attention
Cell phone bans have a critical flaw that can not be fixed by changing attitudes toward safe driving, or increasing enforcement: they still allow cell phone use. While the apparent goal of cell phone ban legislation is to limit manual manipulation of phones, prior studies have shown that this had little impact on driving performance (4,5). Handheld cell phones use may be banned, but headset phones are allowed, and even encouraged (1,3). The message this sends to individuals is that using a headset phone is safe and acceptable while driving (1,5). It will not put them at higher risk for an accident. Unfortunately, this is not the case (2, 4). A study by the Direct Line analyzed the effect of various distractions on driving performance and reaction time (2). Compared to the control, use of hands-free and hand-held cell phones caused an increase in reaction time, with a very marginal difference between types of cell phone.

In cognitive psychology there is an emphasis on thought functioning and attention (18). Selective attention is the process of directing attention to specific stimuli from among a multitude of other available stimuli (18). The extraneous stimuli are excluded from conscious thought and attention. Another attentional concept is sustained attention. This is the ability to maintain one’s attention on a task or stimulus for an extended period of time (18). Sustained attention is necessary while driving since momentary inattention could have disastrous repercussions.

In order to have a coherent conversation on the phone, selective attention to the person with whom an individual is conversing is necessary. This means that less concentration is devoted to other stimuli, such as what is happening on the road (4,18). Since attentional shifting, being able to shift attention back and forth between multiple stimuli, and multi-tasking are possible, individuals are able to attend to a conversation while driving (18). However, cognitive faculties are split and less detail and understanding is gleaned from either task and reaction time is sluggish (1,2,4). Direct Line research found that reaction time was significantly decreased by use of cellular phones (2). Attention deficits from attending to more than one stimulus at once are present whether someone uses a hands-free cell phone or a handheld cell phone; therefore, banning hand-held cell phone use will not prevent the dangerous driving conditions caused by phone use (5).

V. Conclusion
Lastly, there is little evidence that using a cell phone while driving is any more detrimental or risky than having children in the car or listening to the radio (19). Cell phone bans are merely a scapegoat in an attempt to improve driving conditions, ignoring bigger problems of poor baseline driving. Driver inattention and perceptual errors account for almost forty percent of car crashes (4). Instead of banning certain activities while driving, education should be provided that warns of the dangers inherent in various distractions. Without education people will continue to view cell phone bans as frivolous restrictions on their liberty without merit (5). And worse still, people will continue believing that headset phones are the solution to the problem.

VI. References
1. Goodman, M. F. et al. An investigation of the safety implications of wireless communication in vehicles. Report summary: 1997, Retrieved: Nov. 13, 2007
2. Direct Line Motor Insurance. The Mobile Phone Report: A Report on the Effects of using a ‘hand-held’ and ‘hands-free’ mobile phone on road safety. Direct Line Motor Insurance 2002. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2007$FILE/Mobile%20Phone%20Report.pdf
3. Governors Highway Safety Association. Cell Phone Driving Laws. Washington, DC: Governors Highway Safety Association. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2007
4. Strayer D. et al. Cell Phone-Induced Failures of Visual Attention During Simulated Driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 2003; 9: 23-32.
5. Lissy, K. S. et al. Cellular Phone Use While Driving: Risks and Benefits. Boston, MA: Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. 2000 Retrieved Dec. 1, 2007
6. Janz, N. et al. The Health Belief Model: A Decade Later. Health Education and Behavior 1984; 11: 1-47.
7. Jonsson I-M. et al. Don’t Blame me I am Only the Driver: Impact of Blame Attribution on Attitudes and Attention to Driving Task. CHI 2004; 1219-1222.
8. Thambirajah M. S. Social Psychology: Attribution (pp. 206-209). In: Psychological Basis of Psychiatry. Churchill Livingstone: 2005
9. Kanellaidis G. A survey of drivers' attitudes toward speed limit violations. Journal of Safety Research 1995; 26: 31-40.
10. Kelley, H. The Process of Causal Attribution. American Psychologist 1973; 28: 107-128.
11. Weiner, B. Attribution Theory, Achievement Motivation, and the Educational Process. Review of Educational Research 1972; 42: 203-215.
12. Thambirajah M. S. Social Psychology: Obedience (pp. 217-219). In: Psychological Basis of Psychiatry. Churchill Livingstone: 2005
13. Holland C. Exceeding the speed limit: An evaluation of the effectiveness of a police intervention. Accident Analysis and Prevention 1996; 28: 587-597.
14. Frederick, P. et al. Effectiveness of primary and secondary enforced seat belt laws. American Journal of Preventative Medicine 1999; 16: 30-39.
15. Campbell, B. The association between enforcement and seat belt use. Journal of Safety Research 1998; 19: 159-163.
16. David, J. et al. Motor Vehicle Restraints: Primary versus Secondary Enforcement and Ethnicity. Journal of Trauma-Injury & Critical Care 2002; 52: 225-228.
17. Vaa T. Increased police enforcement: Effects on speed. Accident Analysis and Prevention 1997; 29: 373-385.
18. Thambirajah M. S. An Introduction to Cognitive Psycholgy: Attention (pp. 144-145). In: Psychological Basis of Psychiatry. Churchill Livingstone: 2005
19. Curry D. In-Vehicle Cell Phones: Fatal Distraction - Yes or No? Proc. of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 2001; 562-566.



  • At December 10, 2007 at 3:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    While driving my car, I have been hit 2 times by people distracted by talking on their cel phones as well as having a couple near misses at other times (I drive about 60,000 miles each year)

    1 woman drove thru a stop sign and hit me broadside, while a man failed to notice a line of cars stopped for a red light and hit me in the rear.

    When people tell me they can talk on a cel and drive at the same time with no problem, and it's no worse than eating while driving.
    I suggest a simple test.

    Get a value meal (the typical meal eaten while driving) turn an a TV show. Have a 3rd person watch the TV show and do nothing else.

    Make a call on your phone and watch the show.

    Have the 3rd person ask you questions about the show. How much of the show did you actually see? What happened? What were some of the backgrounds shown?

    Get another Value Meal and watch another TV Show with a friend who does not eat anything.

    occassionally talk with your friend as you may do while driving and eat your meal.

    seperate from each other and have the 3rd party ask you both what happened in the TV show. see how much you each retained or noticed happening.

    Unless you have photographic memory, you'll find that eating and a little small talk do not affect you much, but you'll have almost no real memory at all of what happened on that TV show while talking on your cel.

    While I personally believe in minimal government intrusion into our the way we live our lives, I've done this test on a few people and am satisfied that cel phone use should be totally banned while driving. Nothing is so important that it can not wait for you to stop somewhere safe to talk.
    the risk of cel phone usage while driving is dangerous to the talker as well as anyone in their path.

    John L Budzash
    Howell NJ

  • At December 10, 2007 at 5:53 AM , Anonymous Mouhamad A. Naboulsi said...

    Many of the points raised by the author are valid, or at least I can concur with, but I strongly disagree with others.

    My background as a traveling automotive consultant that heavily depended on connectivity to do my work and live my life clearly indicated to me that distraction from cell phones, pagers PC and navigation software is a real concern and it is not just me. The same is true when observing other drivers while with them or while driving next to them.

    1: I believe that not obeying the speed limit or similar laws is a moral dilemma, because It is the breaking of a promise of citizenship to your fellow citizen, e.g. cheating.

    2: Hand held is more dangerous then ear piece because it requires motor skills in addition to the cognitive skills. With lengthy calls, drivers inevidably will lean to one side or another to support their arm and consequently loose proper road perspective and mirrores adjustment.

    3: Evidence of accident caused by cell phone points the finger at incoming calls (At caller convenience with startling effect) as the highest cause followed by dialing and then other reasons.

    So cell phones do cause accidents in one way or another and they should be controlled not banned.

    We have created such a solution that can help with this problem by treating the entire driving experience as ONE SYSTEM. this will syncronize the phone operation with the rest of the driving experience.

    For more about our solution, please see

  • At December 20, 2007 at 3:24 AM , Blogger Timothy Smith said...

    Unbelievable. Is this an essay for a college class? Please. I suggest the author talk to the thousands of kids and parents whose lives have been forever changed by crashes caused by cell phone distractions. This issue is so clear-cut and non-defensible I wonder what the author's motivation (or corporate connection)is. I work with parents and the traffic safety community to help reduce car crashes, and am involved with research and technology on cell phone use and driving. To string together a bunch of disparate studies and end with an unsupportable conclusion is dangerous and helps no one.

    Timothy Smith
    author, Crashproof Your Kids: Make Your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driver


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