Using a cell phone while driving quadruples the chances of becoming involved in a crash - whether or not the motorist is using a hands-free device - according to a report released yesterday by a leading traffic safety advocacy group.
Yet two-thirds of Americans believe it is safer to talk on the phone while driving if one's hands are free, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported.
The AAA Foundation report is a compilation of studies that looked - among other things - at billing records of drivers who had been involved in crashes to see whether they had been talking on cell phones just before the events.
In two such studies, no statistically significant difference in risk was found between the use of hand-held cell phones and the hands-free models.
The report also cited another study showing that cell phone use delays driver reactions to critical road events by an average of 0.23 seconds - with little difference between conventional cell phones and hands-free devices.
"The best available evidence suggests that it is no less hazardous for a driver to use a hands-free phone than to use a hand-held phone," the report concludes.
According to the report, four in five Americans now own cell phones and more than half of drivers admit in surveys to using them while driving.
Several states - including California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington - have adopted laws banning the use of hand-held phones while driving.
The Maryland General Assembly has debated such bills in past years but has rejected them, except in the case of novice drivers.
Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, noted that her organization has long supported wide-ranging laws prohibiting distracted driving rather than narrowly focused measures addressing hand-held cell phones.