In the next several weeks, Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign a bill that would make Oregon the sixth state to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Starting Jan. 1, violators of the ban could be fined $90.

"The use of hand-held cell phones while driving is extremely dangerous, and there are numerous studies supporting just that," says Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie). She sponsored House Bill 2377, which passed the state House 38-22 and the Senate 16-13.

One of the studies Tomei consulted was conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. That 2008 study looked at three states and Washington, D.C., from the time of the earliest such bans in 2001 through 2008, and concluded hand-held cell-phone bans reduced fatalities in bad weather and during rush-hour traffic.

Yet for every study about unsafe drivers on cell phones or even the intuitive belief that banning hand-held cell phones while driving will reduce accidents, there's plenty of other research that raises questions about the effectiveness of such bans.

One such study questions the assumption that hands-free cell phones—which are still allowed under HB 2377—are less dangerous than their hand-held counterparts.

"[There] is not an iota of difference between hands-free devices and hand-held devices" in decreasing crash risks, says David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who studies cell-phone use and driver distraction.

And even Jed Kolko, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California that Tomei cited, reached similar findings to Strayer's on the question of hands-free phones being safer than hand-held ones while driving.

Kolko wrote in March 2009 in the The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy that research "consistently shows that hands-free and hand-held phone usage have similar effects on driver distraction and accident risk."

Kolko tells WW "it is quite possible" that bans on hand-held phones while driving help because some motorists will reduce their cell-phone usage.

State Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland), who supported HB 2377, acknowledges "you are still impaired" as a driver with a hands-free phone, but that the measure is at least a step forward in highway safety.

The second hole researchers have poked in the case for hand-held restrictions is that similar laws in other states appear to have had no impact on highway safety.

Two graduate students in economics at the University of California-Berkeley, Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram Pathania, parsed data from the first few months of hand-held cell-phone bans in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, plus two cities with such bans.

Their study found "no sharp drop in crashes for any of the regions during the five months following ban enactments."

And some also doubt whether police already stretched thin have the time to enforce the measure. WW found last year, for example, that a new Oregon law in 2008 banning motorists under 18 from talking on their cell phones while driving had not been enforced by police nearly four months after its inception (see "Phony Law," WW, April 23, 2008).

"People are going to do what they're going to do, regardless of minor-infraction laws," says East Hartford Patrol Officer Matthew Parlapiano in Connecticut, one of the states with a hand-held phone ban.


Utah professor David Strayer's research also shows that drivers' conversations with their passengers actually reduce the risk of crash because passengers tend to alter the flow of conversation based on driving conditions, and because passengers also serve as an extra set of eyes.