New Research Suggests Cell Phone Use Does Not Increase Driving Accidents

New Research Suggests Cell Phone Use Does Not Increase Driving Accidents

If cell phone ownership is going up, but the number of crashes per vehicle mile traveled in the U.S. is going down…

By David Murphy for Ziff Davis

How many times have you been changing a tune on Spotify, texting a friend, or talking on your phone while driving your car? And how many times have you found yourself in a situation that might not have been bad as a result of your temporary distraction, but could have been pretty bad?

We’re willing to bet that plenty of people would put themselves in that camp. However, new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science looks to turn around the oft-perceived correlation between traffic accidents and phone use.

Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram S. Panthania start out their paper, “Driving under the (Cellular) Influence,” by taking a look at the hard data: Specifically, why the prevalence of cell phone ownership has increased steadily over the past thirty years or so, yet the number of crashes per vehicle mile traveled in the United States has not followed suit. In fact, it’s decreased, which doesn’t appear to make sense alongside accompanying research that indicates up to four-fifths or so of cell phone owners hop on their devices while they’re driving.

In other words, shouldn’t we be having more wrecks?


To test this correlation in greater detail, the researchers checked out some raw figures provided by an unnamed cellular provider over an eleven-day period in 2005. Bhargava and Panthania looked at the frequency by which the callers’ connections flipped between various cell phone towers as a means of determining that that said calls could have only been placed by people travelling in vehicles.

The researchers also noted that the number of calls being placed on the weekdays tended to spike up around 9 p.m. – collating with a typical user’s cellular plan switching from standard minutes to more robust (or unlimited) night and weekend minutes.

The problem? Crash rates reported around the same timeframe in that area did not themselves change in proportion to the increased number of calls being placed.

“We then generalize our crash analysis to include eight additional states for which we have the universe of crash data. Placebo tests of weekends and proximal hours, as well as robustness checks to account for the reporting bias in crashes, confirm that cell phone use does not result in a measurable increase in the crash rate,” reads Bhargava and Panthania’s report.

To be fair, the study only considers cell phone use, and it’s not as if researchers can tell whether it’s a driver placing the call or a passenger. That rules out texting, for example, as well as any other “safer” measures that drivers might be employing when placing calls. Additionally, it’s possible that road conditions around the time in which calls were analyzed were safe enough that cell phone use wouldn’t have a significant impact on drivers’ abilities to begin with.

“However, we note that hands-free use was quite uncommon during our estimation period and that laboratory research has generally not found differences in crash risk across these technologies,” Bhargava and Panthania write.

The researchers present three theories as to why cell phone use while driving might not be as dangerous as it’s thought to be: First, that drivers simply drive more carefully when they’re chatting on their phones. It’s also possible that drivers are, in general, used to driving with distractions – be it jamming to the radio, talking to friends, or what-have-you – and cell phone use is just a derivative of that, with no additional risk involved. Finally, Bhargava and Panthania suggest that it’s possible that cell phones negatively affect some drivers behind the wheel, but are “beneficial for other drivers or under alternative driving conditions.”

“We note that this research does not imply that cell phone use is innocuous. It simply implies that current cellular use by drivers does not appear to cause a rise in crashes,” they write.