WASHINGTON – The recent high-profile manslaughter trial of a midshipman who crashed on the Capital Beltway, killing a New York couple, focused attention on the problem of people using cellular phones behind the wheel.
But a Capital News Service analysis of fatal accident data indicates that cell phones may not be the problem that the headlines indicated.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows just two fatal accidents in Maryland since 1994 in which cellular phone use was listed as a contributing factor — a January 1994 crash that killed a child in Montgomery County and the Nov. 28, 1999, accident near Oxon Hill involving Midshipman Jason Jones.
“I have yet to go out on one (an accident) and … hear a trooper say that because someone was on the phone they ran into a truck or whatever,” said Maryland State Trooper Cynthia Brown, whose work has involved accidents for over a year. “Drinking, yes. But phones, no.”
But others insist that the threat is real, whether the data reflects it or not.
Frances Bents, vice president of Dynamic Science Inc. in Annapolis, pointed out that it is frequently impossible for police inspecting crash sites to tell whether drivers had a phone. And even if they do, it is difficult for officers to determine if or how drivers were using it at the time of the accident.
Despite this uncertainty, Bents believes that cellular phones do pose a grave threat to Maryland drivers.
“The crashes (to which cell phones have contributed) tell us that the drivers are just not aware of the driving situation,” said Bents. “They are really involved in conversation.”
Maryland Delegate John Arnick, D-Baltimore County, said there is “no question” that cellular phones distract drivers and can lead to otherwise avoidable accidents. Arnick said he will reintroduce a bill, which failed earlier this year, to levy fines of up to $500 on drivers caught using hand-held phones.
But Dee Yankoskie, manager of wireless education for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said that several years of data from other states has shown that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all accidents involve cellular phones.
David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, put that number in context. He said that a U.S. driver with a cell phone faces 6.4 chances in 1 million that he will be involved in a fatal accident. In contrast, driving without a seatbelt kills 49.3 in 1 million, and the general chances of having a crash with a large truck are 17 in 1 million.
Ropeik agreed with critics that the NHTSA figures are unreliable, because police in most states have not been required to report when cell phones are a factor in car accidents until recently. Yankoskie said that Oklahoma and Minnesota have been collecting data on driver distraction for some years.
Maryland State Police did not begin compiling data on driver distractions — which include cellular phone use — until October of this year. Those figures will not be available until early next year, Brown said.
In the two earlier fatal crashes in Maryland, cellular phone use was listed as among “driver-related factors” contributing to the accident.
The first phone-related death reported in Maryland occurred on March 26, 1994, when a 33-year-old woman crashed her Mazda into a tree in Montgomery County. The crash killed a 7-year-old boy who was in the front seat with the woman and caused an “incapacitating injury” to a 4-year old in the back seat.
The driver was wearing her seatbelt, but neither boy was belted in at the time.
The NHTSA crash report did not name the victims or give the location of the accident, and a search of newspaper archives did not turn up further details.
The second phone-related death involved Jones, the midshipman, who struck and killed New Yorkers John and Carole Hall while their car was stopped on the side of the Capital Beltway near Oxon Hill. Published reports said Jones, 20, had started to dial his cell phone when he lost control of his Pontiac and ran into the Halls’ Mazda.
Jones was charged with vehicular manslaughter in the deaths of the 47- year-old couple, but convicted of the lesser charge of negligent driving in Prince George’s County Circuit Court earlier this month, and fined $500.
Brown noted that it is not illegal to drive and talk on the phone in Maryland — something that Arnick aims to change with his bill.
But Ropeik and Yankoskie added that even if cell phones do pose a risk to lives in some incidences, they also help save lives in others. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association estimates that 120,000 calls every day are made from wireless customers to 911, for example.