A month of government scrutiny and some high-profile accidents have highlighted the hazards of driving while fumbling with a cellular phone.
But even as carriers push manufacturers to make safer handsets, wireless industry officials and drivers advocates say that the risks are overstated and that proposed legislation aimed at curbing cell phone use in cars is unnecessary.
"Cell phones are not a large issue—yet," said Mark Edwards, managing director for traffic safety at AAA, in Heathrow, Fla.
At a congressional Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting in Washington earlier this month, AAA officials testified that according to a recent report, dialing a cell phone accounted for only 1.5 percent of accidents involving distracted drivers. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which is the special interest group of the wireless industry, said it was delighted by the findings. CTIA recently launched a public service campaign encouraging drivers to be careful while talking on the phone, but the organization opposes legislation prohibiting cell phones in cars.
CTIA President Tom Wheeler, in Washington, said people need cell phones in their cars in case of an emergency.
Still, awareness of the dangers of driving while distracted has been raised in recent weeks, and several accidents—including a cell phone-related wreck in Atlanta last month that left model Niki Taylor in critical condition—have become rallying points in the public debate.
"The cell phone in particular has become a significant highway safety concern," said Robert Shelton, executive director of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in Washington.
The NHTSA is expected to release this summer a study reporting that 54 percent of drivers in the United States have cell phones in their vehicles, that 80 percent of them keep the phones turned on while they drive and that 73 percent have used a phone while driving. Neither the NHTSA study nor the AAA report indicate a correlation between cell phone use and driving mishaps, but AAA said the data is incomplete.
Only 20 states have police forms that include cell phone use as the cause of distraction, and even in those states, drivers may not own up to it; the NHTSA study did not check drivers phone records to see if they were chatting at the time of an accident.
And national studies on the subject have yet to take into consideration the growing number of phones that let a user surf the Web.
"I guarantee you, you dont want to be on the road with someone who is accessing the Internet," said Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Technical Transportation Institute, in Blacksburg, Va.
Meanwhile, the telematics industry is using the distracted-driver controversy to push its vision of high-tech communication devices for automobiles. Officials argue that in-vehicle devices are inherently safer than a handset on a car seat because they use technologies such as speech recognition to enable hands-free use, even for Web surfing.
"People carry on their lives while theyre driving," said Michael Orr, CEO of MobileAria Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., company founded by Palm Inc. and Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. that plans to launch several products later in the year. "You cant actually stop them, but you can make it safer. ... Our version of telematics is to add voice-enabled productivity like being able to get directions to the nearest hotel."
The products MobileAria has in mind will include screens, though, as will the products of other telematics companies. Agere Systems Inc., of Allentown, Pa., for example, last week announced that it has licensed Airbiquity Inc.s aqLink wireless communications software. Agere will integrate the software into its telematics hardware, which makes it possible for the products to communicate over Code Division Multiple Access, Time Division Multiple Access, Global System for Mobile Communications and Motorola Inc.s iDEN network. Previously, the products worked only over analog networks.
MobileArias Orr said that, even when they have screens, telematics devices are safer than some of the things drivers already do in their cars. "If you give them a map on a screen, thats safer than reaching over and opening a map while youre driving," he said.
Shelton reported that the NHTSAs safety concerns indeed go beyond simple phone calls.
"The devices that are receiving NHTSAs main attention are cell phones, route navigation systems, on-board computers that deliver personalized Internet-based information and other multifunction systems," he said. "The in-vehicle electronic devices currently installed in motor vehicles are not being fully evaluated by the industry for their potential to cause driver distraction."
At any rate, the AAA report states that keeping your hands free is not the issue when it comes to distracting drivers, Edwards said. "It would seem obvious to any of us that hands-free would be safer than handheld, but no study to date [has shown that to be the case]," he said. "Its the conversation that is the distraction."
Legislators are looking at laws created in Portugal, Israel and Singapore that ban cell phone use while driving. Australia, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, the Philippines, Romania, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, New Delhi in India and Hong Kong allow hands-free use only.
In the United States, a handful of local jurisdictions have passed laws prohibiting cell phone use, but no state or federal laws have been passed.