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Cell Phone-Using Drivers Admit to the Distraction

April 18, 2001|JOHN O'DELL

"How could you write an article on defensive driving and never mention cell phone use? Cell phone users equate to DUI! . . . Shut up and drive!"

--E-mail from reader Leo Galcher of San Clemente.

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Well, readers know best, and as the Highway 1 e-mail bag revealed after a piece on defensive driving was published late last month, quite a few don't think it's safe to drive while talking on a telephone.

Indeed, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that using cellular phones while driving quadrupled the risk of being involved in a traffic accident.

And a nationwide online survey conducted last month by Ohio-based Progressive Insurance Co. should provide more ammunition for those campaigning to make it illegal to use cell phones while operating a motor vehicle.

Among other things, the survey asked people who used cell phones while driving alone (with no one in the car to warn them if they weren't paying attention to driving) to confess to all the unsafe things they'd done.

Forty-six percent of solo drivers using their cell phones admitted to swerving into another lane of traffic while talking on the phone; 41% said they routinely speed up while driving alone and talking on their cell phones; 21% had inadvertently cut in front of another vehicle while talking on the phone; and 10% said they had run a red light while yakking.

More than two-thirds of those admitting to running a red light while talking on a cell phone were men.

Using a cell phone and inattentively weaving all over the road apparently causes others to drive badly, too. The survey found that 43% of those polled admitted to speeding up to get away from a cell phone user who was driving erratically.

Progressive, one of the nation's largest auto insurance companies, says it conducted the survey in an attempt to provide a definition of the typical cell phone-using driver. That typical user tends to be young and male: The survey found that 61% are men, and that 71% said they are between 18 and 34.

And while sport-utility vehicles take a lot of heat from traffic safety groups, the Progressive survey found that phone-using drivers preferred mid-size cars and compact cars over SUVs.

The survey makes liars out of those who claim that a cell phone in the car is largely a necessity of business. Progressive's respondents said that more than three-quarters of their conversations--78% to be exact--were with family members or friends and not related to

business. And 31% of those who use a cell phone while driving alone said they had not used the phone for a work-related call in the last six months.

In addition, 40% of respondents said they work outside the home up to 50 hours a week and claimed they wouldn't use a cell phone in the car if they had more time to take care of personal business. Half of all cell phone use reported by survey respondents took place while they were driving to or from work,

Finally, 26% of all respondents said they believe it should be illegal to use a cell phone while driving.

"We're trying to take the temperature of the American public on auto-related issues," says Kathleen Colan, spokeswoman for Progressive.

"What surprised us about this survey was how many people admitted to erratic driving" while using their cell phones.

Complete survey results, and links to cell phone safety legislation in various states and to other cell phone-related information, can be found at http://www.progressive.com.

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