Cell Phone Use While Driving Another Kind of DUI

By Betsy Weaver, Ed.D., and Rachel Hamburger


texting while drivingHow many times have you driven into your child’s school drop-off lot while juggling a cell phone against your ear? Or seen another parent driver doing the same, as swarms of kids exit from cars and head across the lot into the school building?


Cell phone use has exploded in the United States, with statistics revealing that the number of people using a cell phone has grown from 4.3 million to more than 134.5 million in the last decade. The technology has great advantages – and serious problems. Using a cell phone is a dangerous distraction, especially while driving.


Two years ago, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University randomly videotaped drivers and found that 1 in 3, or 33 percent of all drivers observed, used a cell phone while driving. It has become a way of life for many of us, and we don’t want to believe that it’s dangerous. But research – and car accidents blamed on cell phone use – suggest otherwise.


More and more state governments, often prompted by serious or deadly accidents, have passed laws to protect against the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have banned text messaging while driving, and some have taken on cell phone calling as well:


  • 6 states and D.C. have banned the use of handheld phones while driving.

  • 5 states and D.C. have banned talking or texting on a handheld cell phone while driving.

  • 17 states and D.C. have barred school bus drivers from talking on cell phones – and one state has barred school bus drivers from texting – while operating a bus.


Most parents are aware of the potential dangers of using a cell phone while driving. But they often don’t think they’re vulnerable. As one mother of two recently commented, “I only use hands-free, and I am very diligent. I am not distracted.”


It’s a common refrain, and it should sound vaguely familiar; people sometimes say this about drinking and driving: “I drive very carefully and am not distracted when I have had a few drinks.” Cell phone use and drunk driving? It’s not as outrageous a comparison as you might think.

A 2008 study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology compared the effects of driver conversations with a passenger to driver conversations on a cell phone. Researchers tested 96 adults operating a driving simulator with different types of distractions. They found that drivers speaking on their cell phones – even using a hands-free device – were four times more likely to fail at the driving tasks presented to them than those engaging in passenger conversation. Specifically, drivers conversing on a cell phone performed worse at critical safety tasks, such as exiting and staying in their lane. Conversations with passengers, by contrast, were found to aid in navigation and even in supporting the driver.


This same study cites the level of impairment from cell phone distraction as comparable to having a blood alcohol level of .08 – in other words, it’s comparable to the legal measurement of being intoxicated.


Not surprisingly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists cell phones second only to alcohol as a risk factor for operating a car. As parents, you would never drive intoxicated with your child on board. And yet, when you use your cell phone while driving, you are an impaired driver.


The message here is that it’s not the cell phone itself – whether handheld or hands-free – that makes cell phone use unsafe while driving. It’s your brain. Cell phone conversations are just too distracting, and convincing yourself that you aren’t impaired is rationalizing a dangerous, unnecessary risk.


Think of it this way: grabbing for your cell phone or making or taking a call while on the road can aptly be likened to taking a drink.


Betsy Weaver, Ed.D., is founder and CEO/President of TPR Media (, providing electronic communications solutions between patients and care providers to improve health outcomes, reduce costs, and build loyalty and trust with health-care consumers through effective email, Facebook, and iPhone communications. Rachel Hamburger also contributed to this piece.


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When Cell Phones, PDAs and Facebook Interfere with Parenting