Talking on a cell phone or text messaging while driving is both common and controversial. Some studies show that talking on the phone and text messaging are dangerous distractions, increasing the risk of being involved in a crash. Accordingly, some jurisdictions have passed laws limiting or prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving.
At one time, it was believed that hands-free cell phone use was less dangerous than use of a handheld cell phone. More recent studies, however, have cast doubt on this. A 2006 study by the University of Utah using simulators concluded that both handled and hands-free cell phone usage while driving are dangerous. Other research seems to support these results, including a large scale study of drivers in Perth, Australia in 2005.
Some research, however, indicates that cell phone use, while distracting, is actually less dangerous than many common distractions such as eating or changing CDs. A large scale study in 2003 by the Amercian Automobile Association showed that cell phone use was less distracting than many other activities. This research was supported by a 2006 joint study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
New York was the first state to enact legislation limiting the use of cell phones while driving. Numerous other states have followed. Text messaging has only recently become popular while driving, and Washington and New Jersey were among states to quickly ban it.
Teen drivers are of particular concern because they are more likely than older drivers to use cell phones and text messaging while driving but have less driving experience. Many states have enacted restrictions on the use of mobile devices by those under age 18 or driving on learner's licenses. Some states also prohibit the use of cell phones by school bus drivers. Some jurisdictions have used the opportunity to beef up wider-ranging prohibitions that cover driving distractions in general.
Employees using cell phones while driving on business pose a special risk to employers. Under the doctrine of vicarious responsibility, lawsuits by injured parties are increasingly targeting the employer. Consequently, many companies have developed internal policies to address the problem.
A novel theory was put forth by attorney Jordan Michael in the June 2003 North Dakota Law Review. Michael would make cell phone manufacturers liable for accidents if they fail to warn consumers of the dangers. While this theory has not yet taken hold in courts, some rental cars that include cell phone equipment have begun prominently displaying warning labels.