Kansas far from banning phones in cars, says state Sen. Les Donovan

12/21/2011 5:00 AM

12/21/2011 11:01 PM

When the National Transportation Safety Board said a ban should be placed on all cellphone use by drivers, the move was praised by a University of Kansas professor who has researched the topic.

And the recommendation seems to be supported by Kansas Department of Transportation statistics, which show that cellphone-related accidents are a growing problem in the state — especially for young drivers.

But state lawmakers, aware that cellphones are an integral part of the lives of so many Kansans, probably aren’t going to ban cellphones on state roads anytime soon.

“I just don’t think that we’re anywhere close to banning cellphone use in a car,” said state Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, a longtime member of the Senate Transportation Committee. “It’s become too much of a personal tool that everybody uses.”

In recent years, Donovan said, the Kansas Legislature has banned texting while driving and placed restrictions on cellphone use by underage drivers. If someone does introduce a bill that would place an outright ban on cellphone use by Kansas drivers, he said, “I would doubt very seriously that it would get very far.”

That’s not good news to KU psychology professor Paul Atchley, who has studied cellphone use by drivers and found that the transportation safety board came to the right conclusion.

“It’s based on solid evidence,” he said. “It’s based on too many tragedies that have happened already.”

Accidents caused by distracted drivers cost the state economy $500 million in 2009 if you translate the deaths, injuries and property damage into a dollar amount, Atchley said. He said he’s convinced that cellphones are responsible for a large chunk of those accidents, and he believes the state will eventually prohibit drivers from using them.

“It will happen,” he said. “It will just take time.”

Tracking cellphone accidents

In 2003, the Kansas Department of Transportation accident reports began listing “distraction — cellphone” as a possible contributing cause of traffic accidents. From 2003 through 2009, the last year for which statewide data is available, there were 480,895 accidents in Kansas involving 767,237 drivers.

Only 2,344 of those accidents — 0.5 percent — listed cellphone use as a contributing cause. Law enforcement officials suspect the number is much higher. Drivers are unlikely to admit that they were distracted by a cellphone, they say, and law enforcement agencies don’t have the resources to check the cellphone records after every crash.

The limited KDOT figures suggest that younger drivers are far more likely than older drivers to be involved in a cellphone-related accidents.

Drivers 18 and under accounted for 9.7 percent of all traffic accidents in the state from 2003 through 2009. But they made up 23.4 percent of the drivers for whom “distraction-cellphone” was listed as a contributing factor in an accident.

Drivers 21 and under accounted for 21.1 percent all accidents during that time but made up 39.4 percent of the drivers who were cited for cellphone use.

The data shows that males and females were cited for cellphone use at about the same rate.

Cellphone research

Among the tools that Atchley uses in his research is a driving simulator that that sits in Frazier Hall on the University of Kansas campus.

Atchley has used the machine to measure the effects of cellphone use on drivers. He’s also watched them eat, shave, apply makeup, shift gears and change radio stations. He said none of those activities is as distracting as talking on a cellphone — especially when the conversation lasts more than a few seconds.

“There’s a big difference between someone being impaired on a 20-minute drive and someone being impaired for 20 seconds,” he said.

Atchley said he focuses his research on young people because they are the most at risk of being involved in an accident caused by distraction from a cellphone.

“They’re the most wired and the least safe to be on road in first place,” he said.

Atchley said traffic accidents kill more young drivers than the next three causes of death combined.

He said surveys show that KU students routinely talk on their cellphones and exchange text messages while driving.

“They know it’s dangerous; they know they shouldn’t be doing it; they all say it’s dangerous,’ he said. “But they do it anyway.”

For many teenagers and young adults, he said, cellphones provide a handy way of communicating with friends. And most wouldn’t think twice before responding immediately to a call or a text message they’ve just received while driving.

“The information itself loses value really fast,” he said. “If you wait a half-hour to reply to a text from your girlfriend, it isn’t worth as much as when you reply right away.”

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