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New Study Finds No Correlation between Cell Phone Use and Increased Crash Rates

New Study Finds No Correlation between Cell Phone Use and Increased Crash Rates

By Jeff Youngs, August 15, 2013
A new study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that talking on a cell phone while driving a car does not increase the risk of a collision with other motorists. This finding refutes long-standing assumptions about cell phone use and driving.

"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."

Bhargava explains that the new study "differs from most prior work in that it leverages a naturally occurring experiment in a real-world context." In this case, researchers compared call records and crash reports for the period between 2002 and 2005, a time when most cell phone service plans included free calling after 9 p.m. on weekdays. To identify which calls were made by drivers, researchers studied those that were routed through multiple cellular towers, reflecting the caller's mobility.

The data showed that between 2002 and 2005, drivers increased cell phone usage by more than 7% after 9 p.m. Researchers then compared this increased rate of calling to all crashes reported across nine U.S. states, and fatal crash rates across the entire country, during the same time period. The data showed no corresponding effect of increased cell phone use on crash rates.

"One thought is that drivers may compensate for the distraction of cell phone 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."

Researchers are clear that this study is relevant only to the subject of talking on a cell phone while driving. It does not claim that such activity does not distract from the task of driving, but does suggest that drivers may compensate for distraction while using a cell phone by driving more carefully.

The study also does not analyze the effects of texting while driving, or browsing the Internet while driving. According to the researchers: "It is certainly possible that these activities pose a real hazard."

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