Cellphones - A Moral Challenge

Commentator: 
Tom Shipka
Audio: 
Transcript: 

I submit a simple moral principle for your consideration. A person who poses an avoidable and unnecessary threat of harm to innocent people should take steps promptly to end the threat.

If you embrace this principle but you use a cellphone while driving, you should stop doing so because cell phones distract drivers and significantly increase the likelihood of accidents. This is clear from the extensive laboratory and road research on drivers and cellphones which was reported this summer in a series of articles in The New York Times. (1) Here are some of the revelations in the series:

  • In 2003, in order to avoid antagonizing members of Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suppressed research that showed that cellphone usage by drivers was becoming a serious and growing threat on America's roadways.
  • Drivers significantly overestimate their ability to multitask.
  • Cellphones are now the number one distraction for drivers in the United States.
  • Drivers who use cellphones cause far more fatalities than drivers distracted by all other causes combined.
  • Drivers who use cellphones are four times as likely to cause a crash as drivers who do not use them.
  • Cellphone users who are sober perform in laboratory tests with the same driving efficiency as drivers who are legally drunk.
  • Headsets and other hands-free phones do not materially reduce the risks of a crash because the conversation itself takes a driver's attention off the road.
  • Cellphone distractions cause at least 2,000 traffic deaths a year and 330,000 accidents a year.
  • In the United States at any given moment, 12% of drivers are using cell- phones to talk, text, or e-mail.
  • Drivers who text while driving often focus on their screens instead of the road for stretches of more than five seconds.
  • Finally, truck drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to have an accident than when they are not texting.

One of the ironies surrounding the use of cellphones while driving is that a high percentage of the very same people who acknowledge that using cellphones while driving is dangerous admit that they continue to do so anyhow. This includes people who caused accidents in the past because they were distracted by their cellphones. (2)

Despite the proven dangers of cellphone usage by drivers, there is no imminent prospect of legal reform. Cellphones are so popular that legislators are reluctant to take a stand for safety over convenience. This year one-hundred seventy bills restricting cellphone usage while driving were introduced in the various states but only ten were adopted. One reason for this is that legislators themselves typically use cellphones while driving. Another is that the cellphone industry lobbies effectively against bans. Moreover, where there are legal restrictions, enforcement is usually lax; for instance, taxi drivers in New York City largely ignore the city's ten-year old ban on the use of cellphones by cabbies and usually the police don't interfere. (3)

So, be proactive. Protect yourself, your passengers, and other drivers. Pull over to a safe spot before you use your cellphone. It is the responsible thing to do. If you wait for government to cower you into doing so, you may wait a long, long time. Meanwhile, thousands of people will suffer or die needlessly. And you or a loved one could be one of them!


  1. See The New York Times, July 19, 2009, July 21, 2009, July 28, 2009, and August 4, 2009.
  2. For instance, see the case of Christopher Hill in The New York Times, July 19, 2008.
  3. See The New York Times, August 4, 2009.

© 2009 Tom Shipka