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Drivers On Cell Phones Cause More Accidents
Washington Post
12/02/02

Researchers say increased cell phone use has led to more crashes caused by drivers on the phone, but the value people place on being able to call from the road roughly equals the accidents' cost.

Opponents of banning cell phone usage by drivers have cited studies that showed the benefit of car calls outweighed the toll from such accidents - medical bills and property damage, for example.

Harvard researchers, drawing on previous research involving cell phones and government figures for auto accidents, says in a study there is a growing public health risk from the reliance on cell phones in cars. The number of cell phone subscribers has grown from 94 million in 2000 to more than 128 million.

Data on the number of crashes caused by cell phones is incomplete, said the study being released Monday by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. But it suggested that drivers talking on their phones are responsible for about 6 percent of U.S. auto accidents each year, killing an estimated 2,600 people and injuring 330,000 others.

The figure was reached using current cell phone usage estimates to update a 1997 study. That study looked at phone records of Canadian drivers involved in crashes to see if they were making calls at the time.

The cell phone industry found fault with the projections and their connection to wireless phones.

``It's sort of assumptions built on assumptions,'' said Kimberly Kuo, spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. ``There are not a lot of substantial findings that allow us to make policy conclusions.''

The Harvard researchers also updated previous studies on the economic costs associated with accidents caused by cell phones, such as medical bills and loss of life. The costs added up to an estimated $43 billion a year - about the same as the researchers arrived at for the value that cell phone owners put on their phones.

Joshua Cohen, lead author of the study, said an individual has a small risk of being in an accident caused by a driver who is talking on the phone, but an overall public health issue exists nonetheless. At the same time, he urged careful consideration when deciding whether to ban cell phone usage.

``People place a value on these calls, so just wiping out the phone calls and saying we are going to ban them, that's not something that should be taken lightly,'' he said.

Cell phone owners cited benefits such as security and peace of mind for instant communication, increased productivity, privacy and quicker crime and accident reporting.

New York state banned driver cell phone use for drivers use in June 2001. Six other states have some regulation of in-vehicle use of cell phones, ranging from a one-hand-on-the-steering-wheel rule to prohibiting school bus drivers from using a phone.

Felix Ortiz, a New York assemblyman who fought for six years to pass the ban, is helping lawmakers elsewhere write similar legislation.

``Whether they say I'm crazy or they harass me, you know what? I think I am doing the right thing for the public safety and for the quality of life,'' he said.

The Harvard study found that a cell phone user has about a 13 chances in 1 million of being killed in an accident while making a call; that compares with 49 in 1 million for someone driving without a seat belt.

Other drivers and pedestrians have about four chances in 1 million of dying in an accident caused by a cell phone user, according to the study. Their chance of being killed by a drunken driver is more than four times as high - 18 in a million.

The statistics are based on an average cell phone owner using 600 minutes a year.

Harvard's statistics update a center study released two years ago that estimated the chance of being killed while driving and talking on a cell phone were about six in a million and 1.5 in a million for other people on the road.

The original study was financed by the center and a grant from AT&T. The second phase was paid for solely by the center, which is supported by money from government, academia and individuals and private companies, including some automakers and insurers.

The original study found that the costs saved by a cell phone ban would be $2 billion, compared with about $25 billion in benefits lost, meaning a cell phone ban would have a loss to society of about $23 billion.

Cohen said the figures changed because more people are using cell phones, and they have better estimates of accidents caused by cell phone use, including those not reported to authorities.