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Despite Bans on Text Messaging, Distracted Driving Still a Killer

Saturday, October 09, 2010


An article in the September 2010 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter estimates one-third of U.S. traffic accidents each year (about 1.6 million) are attributed to people talking on cell phones. In an effort to reduce distracted driving-related accidents in Rhode Island, Gov. Don Carcieri signed the bill that made text messaging while driving illeagal in November 2009, and nearby Massachusetts joined the text-ban list last month. (A RI statute prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using any type of hand-held communication device while operating a motor vehicle). Though neither state prohibits drivers from using handheld cell phones altogether, many states have adopted such laws, including neighboring Connecticut.

Local Legislation

“We have testified on behalf of the hand-free legislation, and it was passed eight years ago, but it was vetoed by the governor at the time and it was not passed since then,” said Janis Loiselle, administrator for the Office of Highway Safety at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. But, Loiselle is quick to point out, hands-free driving isn’t necessarily the answer to distracted driving. Recent studies, she said, conclude distracted driving has less to do with where your hands are, and more to do with where the driver’s mind may be. When a driver is on the phone, they’re not focused on the road ahead, “and more data coming out supporting that,” Loiselle stated.

Phone vs. Passenger Disractions

The Harvard Mental Health Letter article supports Loiselle’s research, citing one study that found drivers (using a driving simulator) conversing by cell phone were more likely than those talking to passengers to drift between lanes and to miss an exit they were instructed in advance to take. “When the researchers analyzed the complexity of the conversations in this study, they found that drivers and passengers tended to modulate their speech in response to external traffic cues. For example, they stopped talking when a traffic problem developed, or the passenger would offer advice to help the driver navigate. Conversations taking place by cell phone, on the other hand, did not vary much in response to changing traffic conditions (perhaps no surprise, because only the driver was actually aware of what was happening on the road).”

Loiselle said the Office on Highway Safety, along with the National Safety Council, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, would support hand-free legislation in Rhode Island legislation to make using a hand held cell phone while driving illegal. Commented Loiselle, “It’s a step in the right direction.”


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