Report: Hand-Held Cell Phone Bans Don't Make Roads Any Safer

October 24, 2014

As of today, 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have passed laws preventing drivers from using hand-held cell phones. A whopping 44 states (plus D.C. and the above territories) prohibit texting behind the wheel -- an act that tends to involve a hand-held device.

The goal of those laws is to keep phones out of drivers' hands, reducing distracted driving and making roads safer. But a new report issued by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute suggests that the laws aren't having their intended effect.

To reach those conclusions, the IIHS and VTTI followed up on two real-world studies on distracted driving, which were conducted six years apart. The organizations also carried out new research on distracted driving and analyzed data about citations issued for hand-held cell phone use. That's a lot of information to sift through, but the major takeaways are as follows:

  • Use of hand-held devices appears to have leveled off. According to the IIHS, "After doubling to 6 percent between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of drivers observed talking on hand-held phones while stopped at intersections has stood at 5-6 percent since then...." It's not clear whether that's a result of education campaigns or of hands-free technology, including headsets and (largely terrible) in-dash voice-recognition systems.
  • Although the number of drivers using hand-held devices has remained stable, traffic fatalities have fallen sharply since 2006, and the number of crashes has, too.
  • While the IIHS and VTTI found that the likelihood of a crash nearly tripled when drivers reached for their mobile phones, actually using the devices had no statistical effect on the likelihood of an accident or near-accident.
  • In fact, holding or using a cell phone wasn't the most common distraction recorded among drivers. That dubious honor goes to interacting with passengers.
  • Curiously, drivers who made calls on their phones were found to engage in fewer other distracting behaviors.
  • Ultimately, talking on a hand-held phone proved about as risky as eating or inserting a CD, all of which made the likelihood of a crash or near-crash about 1.3 higher than when a driver was doing none of those things.

Of course, none of this is to say that you should run right out and text your besties while motoring to the mall. However, the IIHS' Chuck Farmer sums up the curious results pretty well: "Although there have been tragic cases of fatal crashes caused by drivers using electronic devices, an effect on overall crash rates isn't apparent. The research is still unfolding, but there is a basic conundrum: Why is a distracting behavior not increasing crash rates?"

We would add a few questions of our own, like: is it possible that we're learning to moderate our behavior? Or have we been able to adapt to multi-tasking?

The IIHS summary of the study isn't the clearest we've seen, but it's still an interesting read. Have a look here.

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