Danger might be nothing to do with actually holding device
Using a cellphone while driving is a potentially dangerous distraction. That's a fact. Since November 2009, it's been illegal for a New Zealand driver to use a cellphone unless it's in hands-free operation or secured to the vehicle and touched "infrequently or briefly".
Here's the thing: there's very little evidence to suggest that actually holding a cellphone is the problem. There's a good deal more evidence to suggest that the danger lies in the distraction of being involved in a two-way conversation with somebody outside the immediate environment of the vehicle, regardless of what you're doing with your hands.
Let's face it, there's no law that says you have to keep both hands on the wheel. Prior to writing this I made a quick trip down Auckland's Southern Motorway. At a random point, I took a look inside the first 10 cars that passed me. Every single driver was steering with one hand. Nobody had both hands on the wheel. Nobody!
A 2010 study by the insurance industry-funded American Highway Loss Data Institute (HDLI) compared states with and without cellphone bans and concluded that such laws made no difference to crash rates.
"Hands-free devices are no less risky than using a hand-held cellphone," said HDLI spokesman Russ Rader.
"People have been driving distracted since cars were invented. Focusing on cellphones isn't the same as focusing on driving. Distraction has always caused car crashes and cellphones don't seem to be adding to that."
A detailed scientific study was carried out by David Strayer and Frank Drews from the University of Utah's Department of Psychology, back in 2007. They investigated what they called "dual task interference" from using a cellphone while driving.
They found that having a cellphone conversation was different from simply listening to verbal material (such as music or a recorded reading) or even talking with somebody in a car, as the driver's attention still remained on the vehicle's immediate environs.
Participants in the study used a driving simulator in both single-task and dual task situations, with prior warning that they would later be tested on the driving environment they had experienced. Eye movement and brain activity was also monitored during some parts of the study. Cellphone calls were initiated before the test started and always using hands-free capability.
The study found that drivers were twice as likely to miss important road signs while talking on a hands-free cellphone, and that they were less likely to prioritise important objects regardless of how long their attention was fixed on them. The cognitive power of the brain to react to sudden changes (such as the car in front braking heavily) was shown to be reduced by up to 50 per cent while talking on a cellphone.
A simple navigation test (involving a motorway exit) was also carried out, to compare conversation inside the car with conversation on a cellphone. Those drivers talking to other occupants in the vehicle were 88 per cent successful in reaching their destination, but only 50 per cent of those talking on cellphones made the turn.
Nobody disputes that using a cellphone while driving is dangerous. But it's a sobering thought that the danger might be nothing to do with actually holding the device.
Texting while driving is, of course, a totally different scenario. It's hard to imagine a more distracting and dangerous activity. But is it really so far removed from staring down at a car stereo trying to tune the radio, or using a touch screen to key a destination into a portable satellite navigation device? The intent is different, but in practice ...
What the whole issue really suggests is that safe and attentive driving practice is dependent on a strong sense of personal responsibility and intelligent decision making. You can't legislate for that.