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Cell Phones
Fact LTSA & Police Myth
Only a small number of crashes involve cell-phone use and there is no adequate statistical information to determine whether they pose any additional risk at all. Hand-held cell phones are a major cause of accidents and should be banned!

LTSA reported to the Minister of Transport in September 2003: "Cell Phone Use While Driving - Summary of Research and Analysis". 

We have a complete computer-readable version available on this site: here

Alternatively, here is a brief review with some quotes.

Reading between the lines, LTSA recommended against a ban on hand-held cell phones while driving but the Police want to ban them. Eg:

2. Introduction

Cell phone use while driving is a road safety risk.  The level of this risk however is not known and numerous studies and research continues to be investigated on the effects of cell phone use on drivers.  Studies are inconsistent in analysis, methodology and data collection.  The range of qualifying data to show that cell phone use is a road safety risk is identified in some studies as being anything from four times greader than when a cell phone is not being used to having no affect on driving performance.

Although many research studies are inconsistent in their analysis, there is some degree of consistency to support cellphone use is only one of a number of driver distraction activities.  Cell phone use while driving is neither as frequent nor risky as some of these other distractions.  Driver distraction represents a range of problems more encompassing than talking on a mobile phone; such as being distracted by something or someone ouside of the vehicle or by an in-vehicle activity such as adjusting the radio, inserting a CD, attending to children, eating, etc.

National and International Educational campaigns on awareness of cell phone and driver distraction factors are being implemented.  International educational campaigns are considered more successful than government edict or regulation in achieving results for drivers to keep their eyes on the road, and their minds on driving (Stutts, 2001).

The following charts have been prepared from data tables provided in the LTSA report. 

The first shows that cell phones are only a small proportion of in-vehicle distractions causing fatal or injury accidents:

The second shows that cell phones are a very small proportion of total fatal and injury crashes:

To calculate whether there is any increased risk of a serious crash when a driver is using a cell phone you need to know the proportion of drivers using a cell phone at any moment.

There is no New Zealand data which provides that.  However, there is a reported study in New York city:

Longer term effects of New York State's law on drivers' handheld cell phone use.

- McCartt AT, Geary LL. Inj Prev 2004; 10(1): 11-15.

Correspondence: Anne T McCartt, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1005 North Glebe Road, Arlington, VA 22201-4751, USA; (email: amccartt@iihs.org).

doi: unavailable -- What is this?

(Copyright © 2004, BMJ Publishing Group)

OBJECTIVE: To determine whether substantial short term declines in drivers' use of handheld cell phones, after a state ban, were sustained one year later.

DESIGN: Drivers' daytime handheld cell phone use was observed in four New York communities and two Connecticut communities. Observations were conducted one month before the ban, shortly after, and 16 months after. Driver gender, estimated age, and vehicle type were recorded for phone users and a sample of motorists.

INTERVENTION: Effective 1 November 2001, New York became the only state in the United States to ban drivers' handheld cell phone use. Connecticut is an adjacent state without such a law.

SAMPLE: 50 033 drivers in New York, 28 307 drivers in Connecticut.

OUTCOME MEASURES: Drivers' handheld cell phone use rates in New York and Connecticut and rates by driver characteristics. RESULTS: Overall use rates in Connecticut did not change. Overall use in New York declined from 2.3% pre-law to 1.1% shortly after (p<0.05). One year later, use was 2.1%, higher than immediately post-law (p<0.05) and not significantly different from pre-law. Initial declines in use followed by longer term increases were observed for males and females, drivers younger than 60, and car and van drivers; use patterns varied among the four communities. Publicity declined after the law's implementation. No targeted enforcement efforts were evident. Cell phone citations issued during the first 15 months represented 2% of all traffic citations.

COMMENTS: Vigorous enforcement campaigns accompanied by publicity appear necessary to achieve longer term compliance with bans on drivers' cell phone use.

Apart from indicating legislation is ineffective, this study suggests the proportion of drivers using cell-phones at any instant is around 2% assuming that New Zealand usage is similar.

If so, then there is no indication of any significant risk from using cell phones on the basis of the existing New Zealand LTSA data.  Some 2% of drivers are using cell phones and are involved in less than 1% of serious accidents.  On those numbers, on average drivers using cell phones are safer than those not using them.  Putting the result another way, the kinds of drivers who have most serious crashes are not using cell phones when they have them.

Despite the lack of any demonstrable safety benefits, and despite the well-established research showing hand-helds do not affect driving performance adversely relative to hands-free sets, the Police are keen to ban hand-held cell phones because it is relatively easy to enforce and there is some emotional public support for a ban.  LTSA anticipates police will issue an additional 10,000 infringement notices per year under such legislation.

The LTSA Cost/Benefit analysis is woefully inadequate but revealing:

LTSA Cost of Hand-held phone ban

Additional Resource Reqd

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3












Infringements Processing




















Publicity, Admin and Operations










Radio Advertising





Press & Print Advertising










Letters & Enquiries




















14% of phone users purchase hands-free kit















The benefit is estimated to be $16-18M assuming all the cell-phone related crashes were consequently avoided.  Note that their previous analysis of the literature indicated this assumption is in substantial doubt.  Moreover an LTSA Colmar Brunton survey confirmed the US findings that a considerable proportion of drivers are likely to ignore the ban thus reducing any possible benefits.

Their conclusion:

10.9 Conclusion

As the benefit:cost ratio is sensitive to the survey results, we cannot confirm that a handheld ban will conclusively demonstrate safety at reasonable cost.

However the total absurdity of the analysis is demonstrated in this section:

10.3 Economic loss in business activities

Some argue that a ban could result in a loss in business activity because of a possible delay in handling calls from customers.  It is assumed that where any loss by way of a missed call to a firm would be compensated by a gain by other firms of the same industry, especially for homogeneous goods or services.  (ie. hightly substitutable goods or services).  If this were the case a ban would only result in a 'transfer of payment' within the economy.

As any transfer of payment would not be counted as a cost or benefit to the economy, we have not analysed the impact of the transfer payments in detail.  But it is worth noting that:

1.  The preferred tastes of the goods or services provided by different firms for certain industry could lessen the impact on transfer of payment; and

2.  A firm that has lost some business when the driver was unable to answer a call could gain some business at another time when other drivers missed their calls.

This transfer of payments between different firms of the same industry would therefore result in no nation-wide loss in productivity.

And the LTSA thereby blithely dismisses any further cost to the population and businesses of New Zealand through such obvious consequences as:

  • wasted time, effort and additional journeys
  • staff downtime through inability to get necessary information and decisions
  • permanent loss of customers and opportunities
  • inability to compete and communicate internationally
  • inability to utilise and develop new technologies
  • serious loss of quality of life in being unable to communicate well with family members and spouses.

This is not unusual.  I have yet to see an LTSA cost benefit analysis take any realistic account of the costs of their decisions and policies on those affected.  But bureaucracies don't have to care.