Something must be done to curb dangerous cell phone use while driving, but effective solutions are more likely to be technological than educational or legislative, experts say.
The stakes are high: A quarter of car crashes involve texting or talking on a cell phone, according to the National Safety Council, a nonprofit health and safety organization.
In an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, family physician Charles Pless and McGill University professor emeritus Barry Pless wrote that "the paradox seems inevitable: the most promising solution to distracted driving caused by the mobile phone may well be more technology."
They said that education is the most "inexpensive, inoffensive and politically 'easy'" way to curb phone use while driving, but there is not a lot of evidence that education actually works. Counseling could be effective in certain situations -- for instance, if a person is injured and waiting in the emergency room -- but "even if we had solid evidence that counseling about the dangers of distracted driving was effective, it is unlikely that it would reach those at highest risk or be the best use of limited physician time," they wrote.
Education in the form of media messages, whether from TV or the Internet, could be effective (similar to how public health messages engrained in our minds to use seatbelts), but there is no research indicating if this sort of method would actually be helpful, they said.
Evidence is also conflicting on whether instituting laws that would make it illegal to use phones in cars actually decreases car accidents and injuries, with enforcement of the law of playing a role in the efficacy of such measures, they said.
Therefore, technology could be the best way to curb phone use while driving in the form of "software that prevents texting while driving set as a factory default; convenient mobile phone pull-out areas with free wifi access; and automatic messages informing callers that the recipient is driving," the experts wrote. A sensor that would jam up mobile phone reception when the ignition is engaged could also be a solution, as could software that can tell when a phone is being used in a moving car.
Earlier this year, a study conducted by researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that even just reaching for a cell phone while driving (in addition to texting or dialing) raises the risk of getting in, or nearly getting in, a car accident, the Associated Press reported. The study also showed that talking on the phone didn't raise car crash risk, though the AP noted that the study also did not distinguish between handheld or hands-free phones.
For teens at least, electronics are the No. 1 distraction while driving, according to a recent report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.