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Using Cell Phones While Driving Increases Crash Risk

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WebMD Health News

May 18, 2000 -- The link between cancer and radio frequency emissions from cellular phones is controversial, but there?s no question that cell phones increase the risk of car crashes, experts say.

"The real danger from cell phones is traffic accidents rather than brain cancer," says Douglas Mattox, MD, professor and director of otolaryngology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

In response to growing evidence of this danger, two municipalities have passed ordinances limiting motorists' use of cell phones. As other similar laws are proposed nationwide, the cell phone industry has launched a public education campaign.

In September, the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio, passed the first ordinance banning the use of cell phones while driving. Since then, the Philadelphia suburb of Hilltown, Pa., has enacted a similar ban on the use of handheld cell phones. Restrictive legislation is now pending in eight states, although some earlier efforts have failed.

"At least 15 states have proposed bills restricting cell phone use by motorists, only to have the measures die in committee," says Matt Sundeen, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Part of the reason is the political clout of 76 million cell phone users. Also, just about every politician owns and uses a cell phone." But the link between cell phones and crashes continues to grow stronger, and 300 municipalities are also considering such ordinances.

In 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that motorists who use cell phones are four times more likely to crash and equated the use of the phones with drunk driving. In a three-year study of Oklahoma crash data, researchers linked cell phone use with a ninefold increase in fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Oklahoma is the only state to have such data.

In a new report on wireless communications, NHTSA encourages state and local officials to begin tracking cell phone use related to traffic warnings, citations, and crash investigations. The report, which recognized the safety benefits of cell phones and described a nationwide ban as unrealistic, also called for public education about the hazards of driver distraction.

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