WASHINGTON — Drivers using cellular phones are four times as likely to get into a crash that can cause injuries serious enough to send them to the hospital, said an insurance study released Tuesday.
Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that using a hands-free device instead of a hand-held phone while behind the wheel will not necessarily improve safety.
The institute said it was the first attempt to estimate whether phone use increases the risk of an injury crash in automobiles.
“You’d think using a hands-free phone would be less distracting, so it wouldn’t increase crash risk as much as using a hand-held phone. But we found that either phone type increased the risk,” said Anne McCartt, one of the study’s authors and the institute’s vice president for research.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that male and female drivers had the same increase in risk from using a phone, along with drivers who are older and younger than age 30.
With more motorists dialing and driving than ever, lawmakers have tried to find ways of reducing driver distraction.
New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia prohibit talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. In Connecticut, drivers will have to use hands-free devices beginning on Oct. 1. Some cities, such as Chicago, Santa Fe, N.M., and Brookline, Mass., require hands-free devices in automobiles.
But eight states — Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and Oregon — prevent local governments from restricting cell phone use in motor vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The study found an overall fourfold increase in injury crashes when drivers were using cell phones. Researchers said there were substantially more drivers who were using their phones when they crashed compared with other similar periods of driving.
The researchers used cell phone records to compare phone use within 10 minutes before an actual crash with cell use by the same driver during the previous week.
It examined 456 drivers in Perth, Western Australia, who owned or used mobile phones and were in a crash that put them in a hospital emergency room between April 2002 and July 2004.
Each driver’s cell phone usage during a 10-minute interval prior to the accident was compared to use during at least one earlier period when no accident occurred. Each driver, in effect, served as his or her own control group in the study.
The institute had tried to conduct the study in the United States but could not get access to records from phone companies. The phone records were available in Western Australia, where hand-held phone use has been banned while driving since 2001.
More than nine out of 10 suffered at least one injury and nearly half had two or more, with the majority of the injuries being mild to moderate in severity.
Weather was not an issue in the crashes, with nearly 75 percent occurring during clear conditions. About nine out of 10 crashes involved other vehicles and more than half of the injured drivers said their crashes happened within 10 minutes of the start of the trip.
Many studies examining cell phone use in vehicles have been based on police reports, but critics say the records are unreliable because it is difficult to corroborate whether a driver was using a phone.
A survey released earlier this year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 8 percent of drivers, or 1.2 million people, were using cell phones during daylight hours last year. It represented a 50 percent increase since 2002.
Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said the study reinforced the need for driver education. His organization urges state lawmakers to refrain from enacting hand-held cell phone bans because they “incorrectly send the message to drivers that as long as they are hands-free, they are safe.”
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