Block cellphones in vehicles, experts urge

Thousands of people die in car crashes each year because drivers were too distracted by their cellphones to pay attention to the road. A pair of researchers from West Virginia University have a radical proposal for reducing that death toll — equip cars with devices that make it impossible to send a text message, check your favorite traffic app or dial home while the car is in motion.

“Simply stated, handheld portable devices must be rendered unoperable whenever the automobile is in motion or when the transmission shift lever is in forward or reverse gear,” they wrote in a Viewpoint essay in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Automobile and cell phone equipment manufacturers have the engineering capabilities to implement these safeguards, and they should be required to do so.”

Sound extreme? Consider the health costs of distracted driving:

•Experts at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston have calculated that drivers using cellphones cause 333,000 injuries (including 12,000 that were serious) and 2,600 deaths per year.

Researchers from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth have estimated that texting accounted for more than 16,000 crash-related deaths between 2001 and 2007.

Investigators at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg have concluded that, compared with driving with a cellphone put away, texting while driving increases the risk of a “safety-critical event” by a factor of 23 and dialing while driving increases the risk by a factor of six.

Passing a law is not enough to solve this problem, according to the Viewpoint authors, Dr. Jeffrey Coben and Motao Zhu. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 10 states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of handheld cellphones while driving, and 39 states and the District of Columbia have made it illegal to text while driving. Yet in surveys, 40 percent of drivers still admit to talking on the phone when they’re behind the wheel and 13 percent own up to texting.

“As individuals continue to use their cell phones nearly continuously throughout the day, for both business and pleasure, they will continue to be tempted to use this technology — if available — while driving,” Coben and Zhu wrote. Hence the need to make this technology unavailable, they said.

That would still leave room for hands-free systems that let you dial by voice or translate text messages into computer speech, Coben and Zhu wrote — but only if research shows that such systems don’t lead to distracted driving.

In the meantime, “The federal government should enact stringent new safety standards that require all handheld devices to be rendered inoperable when the motor vehicle is in motion,” the pair concluded. “Failure to act in this manner will result in the continued loss of thousands of lives each year to this preventable public safety hazard. In this era of smartphones and smart cars, it is time to be smarter about keeping them apart from one another.”

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