Talking on a cell phone while driving as dangerous as driving drunk?

According to a highly-publicized 2003 study from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis, cell phone distractions cause an estimated 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents. The National Safety Council recently updated the Harvard numbers, estimating that 28 percent of all road accidents are attributable to cell phone use each year, or 1.4 million crashes. Other studies suggest:

Drivers on the phone are four times more likely to crash. You drive like you are legally drunk (blood alcohol level of .08) while on a cell phone. Hands-free devices don't solve the problem because the real danger is concentrating on the cell phone conversation. Heavy local and national media coverage is heightening concern. For example, Oprah Winfrey recently asked viewers to make their car a "No Phone Zone." The National Safety Council also launched the Death By Cell Phone campaign, pushing for a ban in all 50 states.

State officials have responded by prohibiting texting and driving in 19 states, hand-held cell phones in five states, and are proposing tougher new laws in 26 states. For a complete state-by-state overview, see this chart from the Governors Highway Safety Association. Other research is summarized here by the National Safety Council.

Yet, most Americans aren't hitting the off button when they jump in the car. Millions of people continue to talk and drive, an estimated 81 percent of all cell phone owners according to Nationwide Insurance. At any time during the day, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA) found that 11 percent of all drivers are yakking away!

Some people simply question the statistical link between cell phones and accidents. In a 2008 report from the NHSA titled Driver Distraction: A Review of the Current State of Knowledge, the agency said: "While the use of cellular phones poses a significant and increasing risk to roadway safety, studies show that it represents a relatively small proportion of a bigger distraction problem."

A study released Friday by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that the number of traffic crashes did not drop in three states and the District of Columbia after handheld cell phones were banned. The association "urges states to pass texting bans but hold off on addressing other cell use until some clarity is achieved."

Others point out, as did the Des Moines Register in a recent editorial, that there are already penalties in place to punish reckless driving. "Targeting a specific action like text messaging makes no more sense than prohibiting people from applying mascara or eating a sandwich when they're behind the wheel," the paper wrote.