Cell phone and texting bans may equal squat

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The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use." –Adrian Lund, president of both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute

I’m again today reminded of that old but oh-so-true saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

It’s quite apropos for a study released the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), that finds laws banning cell phone use and texting while driving aren’t changing crash rates one iota – again proving that you can’t legislate human behavior.

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The HLDI compared insurance claims for crash damage in four U.S. jurisdictions before and after such bans and found claim rates remained steady when compared with nearby jurisdictions that never put such laws on the books. Month-to-month fluctuations in rates of collision claims in jurisdictions with bans didn't change from before to after the laws were enacted, the group reported, nor did the patterns change in comparison with trends in jurisdictions that didn't have such laws.

HLDI researchers calculated monthly collision claims per 100 insured vehicle years (a vehicle year is one car insured for one year, 2 insured for six months each, etc.) for vehicles up to three years old during the months immediately before and after hand-held phone use was banned while driving in New York (Nov. 2001), the District of Columbia (July 2004), Connecticut (Oct. 2005), and California (July 2008), with comparable data collected for nearby jurisdictions without such bans.

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This method controlled for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans — changes in the number of miles driven due to the economy, seasonal changes in driving patterns, etc.

While HLDI’s database doesn't identify drivers using cell phones when their crashes occur, reductions in observed phone use following bans are so substantial and estimated effects of phone use on crash risk are so large that reductions in aggregate crashes would be expected, the group said.

In New York, HLDI researchers did find a decrease in collision claim frequencies, relative to comparison states, but this decreasing trend began well before the state's ban on hand-held phoning while driving and actually paused briefly when the ban took effect. Trends in the District of Columbia, Connecticut, and California didn't change.

“So the new findings don't match what we already know about the risk of phoning and texting while driving,” noted Adrian Lund, president of both the HLDI and IIHS. “If crash risk increases with phone use and fewer drivers use phones where it's illegal to do so, we would expect to see a decrease in crashes. But we aren’t seeing it. Nor do we see collision claim increases before the phone bans took effect. This is surprising, too, given what we know about the growing use of cell phones and the risk of phoning while driving. We’re currently gathering data to figure out this mismatch.”

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HLDI researchers also went a step further – comparing the District of Columbia's collision claim frequency trend not only with statewide trends in Virginia and Maryland but also with the trend in nearby Baltimore. Again, the group’s findings were no different; there wasn’t a change in the pattern of collision claims. Nor were any differences apparent when the researchers applied a time-based regression model to claims data for each of the study and comparison jurisdictions.

Lund pointed to factors that might be eroding the effects of hand-held phone bans on crashes. One is that drivers in jurisdictions with such bans may be switching to hands-free phones because no U.S. state currently bans all drivers from using such phones. In this case crashes wouldn't go down because the risk is about the same, regardless of whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free.

While 21 states and the District of Columbia do prohibit beginning drivers from using any type of phone, including hands-free, such laws are difficult to enforce, he said. This was the finding in North Carolina, where teenage drivers didn't curtail phone use in response to a ban, in part because they didn't think the law was being enforced.

“Whatever the reason, the key finding is that crashes aren't going down where hand-held phone use has been banned," Lund said. “This finding doesn't auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving.”

So what does this research tell us? That we should junk all these cell phone and texting ban efforts? No, that’s not the lesson here. What we need to realize here is that laws in and of themselves don’t restrict or change human behavior – rather, it takes a lot of time and effort to accomplish a behavioral shift of this magnitude.

Can it be done? Of course – just look at seat belt usage rates among truck drivers. Five years ago, the barely reached 50%. Today, they are well up over 72%. Why? Not just because laws are on the books mandating seat belt use; fleets reinforced the need for them through ongoing safety training, while drivers themselves incorporated seat belt use as part of their professional creed.

More importantly, I think this study touches on a much larger and more pervasive issue among motorists – taking driving for granted. Operating a motor vehicle just doesn’t seem to be a big deal anymore; it’s just another routine of daily life, from brushing one's teeth to sitting on the couch to watch TV.

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How else to explain the willingness of people to jabber on the phone, email one another, watch movies, change clothes, apply makeup, shave, read the newspaper, etc., while driving thousands of pounds of machinery at speeds fast enough to kill and/or cause significant property damage if they lose control of them?

Deaths due to drunk and/or drugged drivers offer another point. In 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 11,773 people died in drunk driving crashes involving a driver with an illegal blood alcohol (BAC) level of .08 or greater – deaths constituting 31.6% of the 37,261 total U.S. traffic fatalities in 2008. People still seem to think it’s OK to get behind the wheel completed wrecked out of one’s mind – as if driving a motor vehicle is child’s play, which it certainly isn’t.

Until the motoring public reacquaints itself more firmly with the dangers driving entails, and stops being so nonchalant about operating motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes, then we’re not going to see big changes in cell phone or texting use behind the wheel – no matter how many laws we put oin the books.

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