Chat-and-crash link debunked

Cell phone-happy motorists may exasperate fellow drivers who wish they’d hang up, but a new study from UC Berkeley failed to find a link between phone use and accidents.

The study’s authors, Cal economics graduate students Saurabh Bhargava and Vikram Pathania, reported that increased cell phone use in recent years as well as on weekday evenings was not matched by an increase in crashes from 2002-05.

Their report, “Driving Under the (Cellular) Influence: The Link Between Cell Phone Use and Vehicle Crashes,” is published on the Web site of the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

The study’s results run counter to the findings of many studies performed in recent years, surprising even the authors themselves.

The study states that the average amount of time a cell phone user spends on calls has jumped more than 500 percent nationwide since 1993.

About 40 percent of motorists admit using cell phones while driving. Calls made just after 9 p.m. on weekdays — the time when free minutes kick in on many cell phone plans — have increased by 20 to 30 percent.

But the jump in the number of calls did not translate into a jump in the number of crashes after

9 p.m, Bhargava said. Additionally, the overall number of crashes, both fatal and nonfatal, had remained flat or fallen since the early 1990s. Data on crashes were taken from seven states from 1987 to 2005.

Bhargava admitted that more study on crashes and cell phone use is needed. He believes the absence of a link between accidents and phones might be because drivers slow down when on the phone or substitute phone chatting for other distractions. It’s also possible that talking on the phone is dangerous for certain groups, such as teenagers, but is beneficial for other groups, such as long-haul truckers who need to stay alert.

Though Bhargava said the study is merely a probe into the connection between accidents and cell phone use, it could cast a different light on a bill by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, that bans cell phone use while driving in California.

The law is set to take effect on July 1 , 2008.

tbarak@examiner.com

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