Should All Driving Distractions Be Banned?

October 25, 2010

Distracted driving kills – we’re beginning to realize that due to recent publicity citing studies that show drivers who talk on cell phones, text while driving, and engage in other distracting activities are more likely to become involved in a crash. Now, according to stories and posts in The Week, Bloomberg, Strollerderby and others, the Obama administration is considering an outright ban on all cell phone use in cars by drivers – even hands-free devices.

Color me incredulous. Do laws change behavior – even if the law is intended to save lives? Since the 1990s, the use of cell phones (which were then bulky and awkward to use, more like carrying a suitcase than a slim communications device) has proliferated and become so entrenched in our culture that millions of students only communicate via texting devices to professors. Millions more don’t even own a land-line phone anymore. It’s all via cell phone or texting device.

And it’s not just young people, but men and women of all ages – seniors included. The offenders include mothers with small children, contractors on the way to or from a job site, businessmen and women, grandmothers, stockbrokers, firemen, you name it. How are we going to change this insatiable behavior with a ban on use of such devices when drivers get behind the wheel?

It seems likely that laws alone won’t do the job. Even with a ban, there will be violators. Consider how long it’s taken for drivers to begin to curb their use of cell phones and pagers in states that have current laws on the books banning use of hand-held devices while driving. In California, especially southern California, until law enforcement recently initiated a crackdown and started writing tickets (some call it a “sting operation”), no one paid any attention to the law at all. Even during the crackdown, news crews taped interviews with the ticketed drivers who said that they’d continue to use their phones to talk and text. They’d just pay the fine.

Oh, and by the way, just two weeks after the crackdown, use of cell phones and texting while driving has increased on the highways in southern California, not decreased.

Interestingly, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that frequency of insurance claims filed for vehicle damages sustained in crashes increased rather than decreased in three of four states (California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington) that were studied after laws took effect prohibiting drivers from texting. In fact, the largest crash increase of all (12 percent) was among  among young drivers (younger than 25) in California following the enactment of a texting ban.

Some of this can be explained by the change in driver behavior. They’re not stopping their texting, just moving the device down – holding it in their lap and averting their eyes to talk or text while driving. They know it’s against the law, but they won’t give up their talking/texting. This behavior exacerbates distracted driving and makes a crash more likely.

Texting today is insane – 1.6 trillion text messages in 2009 versus 1 trillion in 2008. Wireless phone subscriptions were 286 million in December 2009 – compared with 194 million in 2005 (up 47 percent). What do these two statistics tell us? The problem is only going to get worse.

There is technology available today that can help drivers wean themselves from the addictive urge to instantly reply to a text, or pick up the phone and talk to whomever calls. That’s the more responsible approach, it would appear. But this isn’t an issue that has a single solution. Nor will it happen overnight.

Should the use of all cell phones and texting devices – hand-held or hands-free – be banned while driving? Do you support such a ban? If not, how would you resolve the problem of this type of distracted driving? (Granted there are other forms of distracted driving, including eating, applying makeup, scrambling for a CD, reaching for a cigarette, turning to say something to the kids in the back, and so on.)

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

[Bloomberg, IIHS, The Week, Strollerderby]

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