Contrary to Popular Belief, Talking While Driving Doesn't Lead to More Accidents

"It can wait." It has become a fairly popular phrase, and almost anyone in the smartphone universe would recognize that as the universal slogan for "don't text and drive." Plenty of crashes and accidents have happened due to motorists being distracted by their phones while attempting to drive, and in fact, many places have pretty hefty fines for doing just that. However, new research may shed a little light on what has been taken as a given.

A report out of Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that "talking on a cellphone while driving does not increase crash risk." "Using a cellphone while driving may be distracting, but it does not lead to higher crash risk in the setting we examined," said Saurabh Bhargava, assistant professor of social and decision sciences in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "While our findings may strike many as counterintuitive, our results are precise enough to statistically call into question the effects typically found in the academic literature. Our study differs from most prior work in that it leverages a naturally occurring experiment in a real-world context."

The researchers used calling and crash information from 2002 to 2005, and found that increased cellphone use by drivers at 9 p.m. had no corresponding effect on crash rates. If you'll recall, most carriers allowed free communication after 9 p.m. during that time period, so call and text rates were up.

"One thought is that drivers may compensate for the distraction of cellphone use by selectively deciding when to make a call or consciously driving more carefully during a call," Bhargava said. "This is one of a few explanations that could explain why laboratory studies have shown different results. The implications for policymakers considering bans depend on what is actually driving this lack of an effect. For example, if drivers do compensate for distraction, then penalizing cellphone use as a secondary rather than a primary offense could make sense. In the least, this study and others like it, suggest we should revisit the presumption that talking on a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as widely perceived."

The study did say, however, that it was focused on calling, and not texting or browsing the Web. Those acts, which aren't possible to handle via a typical handsfree setup, could indeed increase the chances of you veering off while distracted.