From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Are Cell Phones Dangerous? It’s Still An Open Question

It’s easy to blame cell phones for accidents and health problems. Fixing the blame is another matter. Type “cell phone research” and “mobile phone research” into a popular search engine and watch the big numbers appear – 16.5 million for the first term, and 13.7 million for the second. The figures don’t reflect the number of experiments, but do gauge interest in the blame issue.

That cell phones can be a distraction may be the only undisputed point in the whole body of research.

Testing Cognitive Theories
To find out how well drivers cope with common traffic situations while using in-car electronic equipment, including cell phones, Ford Motor Company launched VIRTTEX (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment) in 2001. In the first year some 500 people from various age groups were tested in the sophisticated simulator. The researchers found that if no distracting tasks are required of the driver, they noticed 97 percent of actions happening around them. When asked to dial a number on a hand-held phone, however, adults missed 13 percent and teens missed 55 percent of other occurrences.

A Canadian study announced in May is taking this point about teen drivers a little farther down the road. Conducted by the University of Calgary and sponsored by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the study of 80 novice drivers will be run in a simulator and on Calgary streets. “Learning to drive requires a person to do many things at once – steering, braking, shifting gears and watching for traffic,” says Associate Professor Jeff Caird, Director of the Cognitive Ergonomics Research Laboratory and the University of Calgary Driving Simulator (UCDS). “When a novice driver adds a distraction like talking on a cellular phone, a task that in itself requires variable levels of cognitive effort, the results can be disastrous.”

Alison Smiley, PhD CCPE, a cognitive ergonomist and president of Human Factors North, an ergonomics consulting firm specializing in on-road experiments, is running the street phase. In both phases, participants will carry out several phone-related tasks, including dialing and answering the phone, while also managing traffic. Researchers will measure the reaction times, eye movements and vehicle control of the participants.

Cell phones and driving – the worst distraction?
Agreement is also rare in studies that rank cell phones against other kinds of driving distraction. A 2003 study by Virginia Commonwealth University study, focusing on the driving behavior of nearly 4,500 drivers and over 2,700 traffic accidents, found that cell phones didn’t even rank in the top five. The researchers say fatigue and passengers are among the bigger distractions.

Even safe-driving groups like the American Automobile Association (AAA) claim that cell phones may be unfairly blamed for traffic accidents, explaining that “handheld cell phones are readily visible to other drivers. When people chance upon a distracted driver and notice a cell phone, they naturally blame the phone.”

Dr. Smiley doesn’t agree. Writing for a paper published in July for the Association of Canadian Ergonomists, she said using the cell phone while driving is ergonomically incorrect. “Drivers should have both hands on the wheel and their attention focused on the road, not on a cell phone conversation. Using the cellular phone while driving is more risky than other activities commonly occurring in the vehicle.” She cited studies that indicate that the risk of having a collision when using a cellular phone was four times higher than when the cell phone was not being used. “A driver on a cell phone is less aware of traffic and other road users,” she noted. “The difference between talking on a cell phone and talking to a passenger is that the passenger can respond to high driver workload by pausing until the driver has completed a particular maneuver, e.g. merging onto a freeway, whereas the person on a cell phone has no idea of the workload facing the driver and can inappropriately continue to demand attention.”

Hands-Free Is/Isn’t a Solution
Her rebuttal works into another aspect of the debate – hand-held vs. hands-free cell phones. She and many other researchers suggest that the thinking and talking is at least as much as a distraction as handling a phone.

The Canadian and Ford studies detect little difference between the two types of phone. A study released in July by researchers from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States supports that position, concluding the use of electronic devices such as cell phones precipitated many crashes and near misses. They pointed out that the head sets or voice-activated dialing led to longer dialing times than for hand-held phones, causing delays that offset the potential benefit of keeping both hands on the wheel.

But whether drivers use a hand-held device or not, “phone use degraded both driving performance and vehicle control,” NHTSA’s Elizabeth Mazzae told the International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles in Washington. The agency is concerned that hands-free devices can give drivers a false sense of security.

In his 2003 study, University of Utah professor David Strayer noted that cell phones, whether hands-free or hands-on, contributed to a condition called “inattention blindness.” According to Dr. Strayer, it occurs when the driver using a cell phone is distracted to the point that the external environment is relatively ignored in favor of the cognitive task, the phone conversation.

EMFs – Increasing the Risk? 
Then there is the question of health and cell phones. Some users report fatigue, headaches and burning skin from using their device. There are claims that electromagnetic radiation, also known as nonionizing radiation and electromagnetic fields (EMFs), affects the body’s cells, brain or immune system, and increases the risk of developing a range of diseases including cancer.

There is no sign of consensus on whether any of this is true, and cell phone manufacturers are loud in their denials: “Years of scientific research reaffirm there are no health risks associated with wireless phones,” said Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak. From Motorola: “Scientific experts review this issue on a continual basis. Their conclusions have been consistent over many years: the radio signals from wireless telephones, two-way radios or other portable communications devices pose no known health risk.”

The disputes are fertile ground for scaremongering. Issued by a manufacturer of devices purported to shield users from harmful phone radiation, the scare runs like this: Don’t accept the industry denials that mobile phones are safe. Mobile phones could be the cigarettes of the 21st century with similar legal battles ahead!

Some research feeds into the alarm. A Reuters article based on research published in The Lancet medical journal in June 1998 reported that cell phone use can significantly increase blood pressure. Dr. Stephan Braune of the University Neurology Clinic in Freiburg, Germany, said EMFs emitted by the telephones could have adverse effects on people suffering from high blood pressure or hypertension, an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

A Swedish study published in 2002 claimed to have found a link between analogue cell phones and brain tumors, but Dr Christoffer Johansen and colleagues of the Danish Cancer Registry, part of the pan-European Interphone study, refuted the Swedish findings. They found that using a mobile phone does not increase the risk of developing a brain tumor. But Dr Johansen’s paper, published in the journal, Neurology, concludes on a more faltering note: “… we still do not know the full story. We advise all people who use a mobile phone to use a hands free set. It reduces exposure.”

The study by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart in the United Kingdom, also dismisses claims of adverse reactions. “Exposure to radio frequency radiation below guideline levels does not cause adverse health effects to the general population; there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines, though this does not necessarily mean that these effects lead to disease or injury,” it reports.

A study published in the June issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that using a cell phone in rural areas tripled the risk of malignant or benign tumors compared to urban use. For malignant brain tumors, the risk was eight times as high for those living in a rural area, according to researchers at the University Hospital in Orebo in Sweden.

The reaction from the industry was predictable. “At best this study is hypothesis generating,” said Mike Dolan, executive director of the Mobile Operators Association in Britain. “Its findings are not in line with the most recent epidemiological studies from Denmark and Sweden, which have not found an association between brain tumors and mobile phone use.”

Other research has explored claims that some individuals are more susceptible to the emissions than others, but a study published this year in Psychosomatic Medicine 67:224-232 tactfully debunks them. Led by Dr G. James Rubin of the Mobile Phone research Unit at King’s College, the researchers write, “the symptoms reported by ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ sufferers can be proven experimentally, suggesting the presence of the condition is unrelated to weak electromagnetic fields.”

The same doctor is leading a new study funded by the British government and industry. He has invited volunteers to participate, and plans to divide them into users who have never had symptoms and those who experience headaches after mobile phone use. The results are aimed at settling the question of the impact of cell phones on health once and for all.

Big Tobacco redux
If the studies ever produce irrefutable evidence that cell phones are innately dangerous or harmful, the litigation industry can be counted on to pounce. It will be Big Tobacco redux, with memories of big tobacco billion-dollar settlements for clients allegedly affected by cell phone-related accidents or illnesses.

The risk factor looks set to remain an open question. The studies are generally co-funded by industry groups or other vested interests. This means the results can be dismissed as tainted – even when they are flawless – by any group that would lose financially or politically from a definitive answer.

The California Council on Wireless Technology Impacts is one of a number of groups calling for more publicly funded research into the question as a means of removing the taint and answering the question once and for all.

Sources: Ford Motor Company; Association of Canadian Ergonomists; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, American Automobile Association; Reuters; Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones; Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine; Mobile Operators Association, Neurology; Nokia; Motorola; American Psychosomatic Society; California Council on Wireless Technology Impacts

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-07-27.