Talking on a cellphone and driving a car have never been deemed a good combination, but researchers have found that it might not be as bad as everyone thinks.
A study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science shows that talking on a cellphone while driving does not significantly increase the risk of crashing.
“To be honest, we expected to find something confirming our intuitions and what prior literature had found, which is, you know, that cell phones result in an increase in crash risk around a factor of four or five,” said Saurabh Bhargava, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of the study.
He and the London School’s Vikram Pathania evaluated calling and crash data from 2002 to 2005.
They chose those years because it was when most cellphone carriers offered free calls on weekdays after 9 p.m., and they found that the volume of drivers calling increased by more than 7 percent after this time.
The researchers then looked at 8 million crashes across nine states and all fatal crashes across the nation before and after 9 p.m.
“What we found was pretty surprising," Bhargava said. "We found, fairly precisely, that there is no change in the crash rate.”
Bhargava said previous laboratory studies that show a significant increase did not persuasively test the causal relationship.
“One potential complication with the laboratory studies is that while I think they do a really good job of measuring potential distractions, one might reasonably think that behavior in a driving simulator is very different than behavior in the real world when the incentives for driving carefully are so much higher,” Bhargava said.
Bhargava said drivers might compensate for the distraction of cellphone use by consciously driving more carefully and selectively deciding when to make their call.
The researchers also compared the crash rates of states that have cellphone driving bans to those that do not and again found no correlation.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia banned talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving, and 37 states and the District of Columbia restricted the use of all cellphones by novice drivers.
Bhargava acknowledged that the period of time the study was conducted does not fully represent the present usage of cellphones, especially regarding texting.
“I think the major change that’s occurred over the last several years is that certainly the popularity of texting and the non-talking use of phones and smartphones has increased dramatically, so texting was much more rare back then,” Bhargava said. “I think people are using cellphones for different purposes.”