Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults think their state should pass a law making it illegal to use a cell phone while driving.

So says a new survey from the University of Michigan’s department of communication studies. The survey included 849 adults aged 18 and older.

Nearly seven in 10 participants owned a cell phone. More than 80 percent of those people said their cell phone has simplified their lives.

Survey participants were generally not too keen on cell phone use while driving. But a recent government survey shows that many drivers are chatting on the phone anyway.

Cell Phone Use While Driving Ups Crash Risk

No Chatting Behind the Wheel?

The University of Michigan’s survey included this question: “Do you think your state government should, or should not pass a law making it illegal to use a cellular phone while driving?”

Almost two-thirds of participants -- 65 percent -- said yes. Another 29 percent said no. The remaining 6 percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer.

Another question asked if police officers should note drivers’ cell phone use on accident reports. More than eight in 10 participants said yes; 8 percent said no; and 6 percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer.

Participants also rated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “A cell phone is a major safety hazard when people use it while driving.” Eighty-three percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Young Cell Phone Users Drive Like the Elderly

Generation Gap

The survey’s youngest participants -- those 18-27 years old -- had slightly different views.

“In this group, fewer people think that it is dangerous to use a cell phone while driving (74 percent compared with 80 percent to 90 percent in other groups),” the report states.

The youngest age group -- which the report calls “Generation Y” -- was also the group least bothered by people using cell phones in public. The report notes that “only 33 percent of Generation Yers agreed that cell phone use in public is irritating to others, when the proportion was 56 percent to 80 percent in other groups.”

The participants were selected from a random sample of landline telephone households in the continental U.S. Interviews were conducted by telephone at home in the evenings or on weekends in March 2005.

The report notes that the University of Michigan’s department of communication studies was endowed by an alumnus who helped found a wireless telecommunications network in rural America.

U.S. Drivers Distracted Behind the Wheel

More Than 900,000 Chatting Drivers

In 2005, there were “974,000 vehicles on the road at any given daylight moment being driven by someone on a hand-held phone,” states a report posted on the web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The study notes that “driver cell phone use increased in 2005, with 6 percent of drivers on hand-held phones in 2005 nationwide compared to 5 percent in 2004.”

Drivers’ headset use also increased in 2005, from 0.4 percent of drivers in 2004 to 0.7 percent in 2005, states the NHTSA’s study.

The NHTSA report was based on researchers’ observations of motorists stopped at randomly selected stop signs or stoplights nationwide from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Even Hands-Free Cell Phones Reduce Driving Ability

Putting the Brakes on Drivers’ Distractions

Elsewhere on its web site, the NHTSA notes that “the data are insufficient to quantify crashes caused by cell phone use specifically, but NHTSA estimates that driver distraction from all sources contributes to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.”

“The primary responsibility of the driver is to operate a motor vehicle safely,” states the NHTSA.

“The task of driving requires full attention and focus. Cell phone use can distract drivers from this task, risking harm to themselves and others. Therefore, the safest course of action is to refrain from using a cell phone while driving,” notes the NHTSA.

By Miranda Hitti , reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD

SOURCES: University of Michigan’s department of communication studies, “On the Move: The Role of Cellular Communications in American Life.” Glassbrenner, D. Traffic Safety Facts, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, December 2005. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “NHTSA Policy and FAQs on Cellular Phone Use While Driving.”