Press Releases

2000 Releases

Study Finds That Restricting Cell Phones While Driving May Be Premature, That Benefits May Be More Compelling Than The Risks

For immediate release: July 24, 2000

Boston, MA--As public concern about driver distraction increases, a risk-benefit study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis finds that:

  • Cellular phone use while driving does pose a risk to the driver, to other motorists, and to pedestrians. It is unclear whether "hands-free" phones are safer than handheld phones.
  • The risks appear to be small compared to other daily risks but are uncertain because existing research is limited and of uneven quality.
  • Little previous work has been done to identify and assess the benefits of the use of cellular phones in motor vehicles.
The Risks
  • The authors calculate that a driver's average risk of being killed while using a cell phone is 6.4 in a million per year. That is 80 percent less than the average risk of fatality to a driver with a blood alcohol level of .10%.
  • The risk of a passenger, another motorist, or a pedestrian being killed by a driver using a cell phone is 1.5 in a million per year. That is 92 percent less than the annual risk of being killed by a driver with non-zero blood alcohol content.

The Benefits

Focus groups of cell phone users and emergency services personnel identified benefits to drivers, families, social networks, businesses, and public health and safety, including:

  • Expanded productive time.
  • Peace of mind.
  • Reducing the number and duration of trips.
  • Decreased emergency response times/improved life saving outcomes.
  • More effective apprehension of motor vehicle law violators such as drunk drivers.
The study notes that the cost of banning cell phone use while driving is about $700,000 for each quality-adjusted life year saved. That is 30 times more expensive than achieving the same public health benefit with driver airbags, and ten times more expensive than achieving that benefit by keeping the speed limit on interstate highways at 55 instead of 65 MPH.

The authors urge that before government regulates cell phone use by drivers, better quantitative information on risks and benefits should be collected. They recommend immediate educational efforts to curtail multiple sources of driver distraction.

The study was funded by AT&T Wireless. It underwent a thorough peer review by 12 scientists, including the leading researchers in the field.

A summary of the report is available in the current issue of Risk in Perspective: Cell Phones and Driving: Weighing Risks and Benefits (PDF).

Further information about the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis may be found on their web site at: http://www.hcra.harvard.edu.

For further information, please contact:

David Ropeik 
Director of Risk Communication
Phone: 617 432-6011
Cell phone: 617 291-5266  
Email: dropeik@hsph.harvard.edu