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Phone Use Boosts Road Deaths
Sun Sentinel Newspaper
By: Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
12/02/02

The death toll from crashes caused by drivers talking on their wireless phones appears to be rising significantly as the devices become a must-have accessory for many people. A study being released today by Harvard University's Center for Risk Analysis estimates a rate of 2,600 deaths a year in such crashes, compared with the same researchers' estimate of 1,000 fatalities only two years ago.

"The amount of time people spend using their cell phones while driving has increased, probably reflecting the fact that it is becoming cheaper to use the devices," said research scientist Joshua Cohen, the study's author. The Harvard study also estimated that 570,000 injuries a year and 1.5 million crashes resulting in property damage can be blamed on wireless phone use. The study will feed into a national debate that pits personal freedom and convenience against safety concerns.

Two federal agencies have recently stepped up efforts to understand how wireless phone use may contribute to accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating wireless phones as a potential contributing factor in several recent serious crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is launching a study of how wireless phone use affects individual drivers, using the government's driving simulator center in Iowa.

Nationwide, there is no uniform measure for tracking accidents in which wireless phone use may have been a factor. The Harvard study used mathematical models to estimate the risk of injury and death as well as the costs and benefits of using wireless phones while driving. The risk analysis center is part of Harvard's School of Public Health. The study concluded that the escalating costs of wireless phone-related accidents are erasing the economic benefits of unrestricted use of the devices by drivers.

Previous economic analysis by Harvard researchers had found that the benefits of being able to readily communicate for business or pleasure while on the road clearly outweighed the social costs of injuries and deaths in accidents.

Cohen's latest calculations found that the costs are now about equal to the benefits. This year, 22 states considered legislation to restrict wireless phone use while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. So far, only New York has enacted a partial prohibition. It does not allow drivers to use hand-held phones. New Yorkers may use devices adapted for hands-free use, which are usually voice-activated and come with an earpiece and microphone.

Cohen, the author of the Harvard study, said federal and state agencies should commission more research before any decision to restrict wireless phone use. The wireless phone industry strongly opposes restrictions on motorists, but it has launched a safety education campaign. The industry encourages the use of hands-free phones.

"There are laws already in place that allow an officer to stop and ticket a driver for distracted driving," said Kim Kuo, a spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "We feel it's going to be ineffective if you just pass laws and ignore the need for education."