Driven To Distraction By Phones?

More people than ever are driving under the influence of their cell phones.

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) survey released earlier this month, eight percent of drivers, or 1.2 million people, are using handheld or hands-free cell phones at any given time during daylight hours. That's double the number from just four years ago.

What does that mean for your safety? Kelly Cobiella takes a look, as part of The Early Show's "Cellular Nation" series.

She drove along with Ronni Graf, who manages her hectic life from her car, with baby in tow and hands-free cell phone at the ready.

"Now," Graff says, "I can change the radio for the baby, get a diaper bag and a pacifier and pass it back to him. That's why it's good for me."

Good? Maybe, Cobiella says. But is it safe?

More and more studies are telling us that, whether it's handheld or hands-free, cell phone conversations are distracting to drivers, Cobiella points out.

According to NHTSA, 2,600 deaths and more than 300,000 collisions each year are related to cell phones, not to mention a fair amount of road rage.

One driver tells Cobiella, "Its terrible. You can get killed."

Another says, "They're paying attention to whoever they're talking to on the phone, and not what they're doing on the road."

Some 40 states are talking about joining New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. in banning hand-held cell phones in vehicles.

"Cell phones seem to be the distraction that people love to hate," notices AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger.

But he and AAA researchers found that, of all the distracting things we do in our cars, cell phones aren't the worst.

"The most prevalent distracting events," he says, "were conversations, rubber-necking, eating and drinking, and dealing with things that had dropped in the car. And cell phones were actually below that list in terms of the prevalence."

A spokesman for the cell phone industry, John Walls, couldn't agree more: "Let's not just malign one possible distraction when there's a whole host of others out there, that are much more common, and can be much more dangerous.

Walls is with the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), also known as The Wireless Association.

And automakers are loading up vehicles with even more distractions, such as navigation systems, dashboard entertainment consoles, and MP3 players, all of which take the driver away from his principal job, driving the vehicle.

But, Cobiella notes, just because cell phones are far down on the list of distractions doesn't make them safe. Researchers have found that dialing takes your eyes off the road and talking on the phone takes your mind out of the car and into the conversation.

University of Utah studies show that cell phones, even while using a headset, have a real effect on reaction time. Some even compare it to driving while drunk.

Kissinger concedes, "People zone out and go into that never-never-land or whatever and lose their attention to the driving task at hand."

And, adds Cobiella, if you thought your hands-free kit was safer because both hands are free to grip the wheel, think again.

"Hands-free units can be less safe, because it leads to longer conversations and more mental distraction," Kissinger observes.

"I feel safe (using a hands-free cell phone in the car)," Graf remarks, "because I think I'm a good driver.

"But, doesn't everybody?" she added.