BOSTON (Reuters) - Physicians should tell patients not to send text messages or use cellphones while driving, just as they advise them against smoking or to use seat belts, a doctor said in the influential New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.
“It’s time for us to ask patients about driving and distraction,” Dr. Amy Ship of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston wrote in a featured commentary in the journal.
Hours before the journal was published, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved the Distracted Driving Prevention Act, which would provide incentives to states with distracted driving regulations.
“It’s a proven fact that distracted driving causes thousands of deaths and injuries every year,” said New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who co-sponsored the legislation.
The bill would offer federal grants to states that have restrictions on cellphone use and texting, and would require the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations on the use of wireless devices by commercial vehicle drivers.
Ship said keeping people off cellphones while they are behind the wheel was an important public safety health measure. “Not to ask — and not to educate our patients and reduce their risk — is to place in harm’s way those we hope to heal,” Ship wrote.
Ship cited growing evidence of the dangers that cellphones posed to people on the road. The National Safety Council has estimated that 28 percent of U.S. traffic accidents — 1.6 million — involve use of cellphones.
The most obvious problem is texting, where people use the cellphone keypad to send email or similar messages. A 2009 study concluded that texting while driving raised the risk of an accident by 23 times.
At least 28 U.S. states now ban texting while driving.
But Ship also urged doctors to tell their patients not to talk on cellphones while driving, and to lock them in the trunk during their trip if that is what it took to avoid the impulse to use them.
She said a 2006 study found that talking on a cellphone posed the same risk as driving while intoxicated, even if the driver was not holding the phone. “Driving while distracted is roughly equivalent to driving drunk,” she wrote.
“In 98 percent of people, reaction time suffers dramatically,” Ship said in a telephone interview after making sure the reporter was not driving during the call.
Ship said talking with a hands-free unit was more dangerous than to talking to someone in the car. “You’re more engaged with your environment than when someone is not present,” she said.
Listening to the radio or music is not the same kind of distraction. “One cannot tune out someone on the phone the way you can the radio,” Ship said. “You don’t have to reply to the radio.”
Ship said doctors could play a key role in reducing cellphone-related accidents, just as a patient was more likely to quit smoking if a doctor spent three minutes discussing the risks of tobacco use.
“Although there are many possible distractions for drivers, more than 275 million Americans own cell phones, and 81 percent of them talk on those phones while driving,” Ship wrote.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Paul Simao