A curveball in the distraction debate

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The point of texting bans is to reduce crashes, and by this essential measure the laws are ineffective. This doesn't mean it's safe to text and drive, though. There's a crash risk associated with doing this. It's just that bans aren't reducing this crash risk.” –Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute

So here’s an interesting question being posed in the ongoing debate over distracted driving: do laws prohibiting texting and cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle – two leading causes of “distracted driving” – actually help reduce crashes caused by such behavior?

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Perhaps not surprisingly, a new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) – the research arm of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – says such laws don’t do squat in terms of reduced distracted driving related crashes.

On top of that, another study – funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and conducted by DriveCam Inc. and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) – found that the crash risks for commercial truck and bus operators jumps significantly if they text or use a hand-held cell phone while driving, use of a hands-free device may actually REDUCE their crash risk.

And, again – in something that’s really not all that shocking – FMCSA’s study discerned that state laws banning texting and cell phone use while driving a commercial truck or bus didn’t do diddly in terms of influencing an operator’s decision to text or use a cell phone.

[However, the agency’s study DID discern that a fleet policy banning the use of such devices did impact behavior – with a driver’s odds of using a cell phone while driving 17% less likely if a fleet maintained a cell phone policy compared to a fleet without one.]

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I say that none of this is really eye-opening because – as I’ve noted in this space before – while many drivers SAY they believe texting or talking on a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle is dangerous behavior, most are unwilling to follow their own advice.

Indeed, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety discovered as part of its 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index that a majority of drivers (62%) feel that talking on a cell phone is a very serious threat to safety, yet nearly 70% of those surveyed admitted to talking on their phones, with a further 24% admitting to reading or sending text messages or emails while driving.

That’s a finding reinforced by HLDI’s recent research. The group calculated rates of collision claims for vehicles up to nine years old during the months immediately before and after driver texting was banned in California (January 2009), Louisiana (July 2008), Minnesota (August 2008), and Washington (January 2008).

Comparable data was then collected in nearby states where texting laws weren't substantially changed during the time span of the study. This 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., HLDI said.

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The end result? “Texting bans haven't reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted,” noted Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and its parent, the IIHS. “It's an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws.”

Month-to-month fluctuations in the rates of collision claims in HLDI's four study states with texting bans for all drivers didn't change much from before to after the bans were enacted. Nor did the patterns differ much from those in nearby states that didn't ban texting for all drivers during the study period.

To the extent that the crash patterns did change in the study states, they went up, not down, after the bans took effect, with increases varied from 1% more crashes in Washington to about 9% more in Minnesota. (HLDI did note that the result in Washington isn't statistically significant).

Young motorists are more likely than older people to text while driving, the group added. In all four of the study states, crashes increased among drivers younger than 25 after the all-driver bans took effect. In California, Louisiana, and Washington, the increases for young drivers were greater than for drivers 25 and older. The largest crash increase of all (12%) following enactment of a texting ban was among young drivers in California.

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“[This] calls into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes," Lund stressed. “They're focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it. This ignores the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem.”

Interestingly, this is where the FMCSA-funded study offers some insight.

The study collected data from over 13,000 trucks and buses and included a total of 1,085 crashes, 8,375 near crashes, 30,661 crash-relevant conflicts and 211,711 baselines (which is determined as “normative” driving used in comparison with the safety events). The major findings were:

• Any cell phone activity that involves using one’s hands (texting/emailing/dialing/accessing the Internet) while driving significantly increased the odds of involvement in a crash/near crash.

• Talking/listening on a hands-free or hand-held cell phone while driving did not significantly affect the odds of involvement in a crash/near crash. In fact, the data shows that talking/listening on a hands-free cell phone while driving had a “protective effect.”

• The existence of a state cell phone law did not significantly impact drivers’ likelihood of using their cell phone while driving, compared to usage in a state that did not have a law prohibiting cell phone use. Consistent law enforcement is an important element in ensuring the laws are obeyed.

• A driver’s odds of using a cell phone while driving were 17% less likely under a fleet cell phone policy compared to a no fleet cell phone policy.

The decline in texting/cell phone use due to COMPANY POLICY as opposed to state law is the important piece here, because “non-compliance” proved – in the HLDI study – to be the likeliest reason why texting bans aren't reducing crashes. For some reason, people seem to adhere to policy (albeit at a low rate) than follow actual laws in the case of texting while driving.

HLDI found in its survey that many drivers, especially younger ones, tend to shrug off these legal bans. Among 18-24 year-olds, the group most likely to text, 45% reported doing so anyway in states that bar all drivers from texting. This is just shy of the 48% of drivers who reported texting in states without bans. Many respondents who knew it was illegal to text said they didn't think police were strongly enforcing the bans.

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“But this doesn't explain why crashes increased after texting bans,” Lund pointed out. “If drivers were disregarding the bans, then the crash patterns should have remained steady. So clearly drivers did respond to the bans somehow, and what they might have been doing was moving their phones down and out of sight when they texted, in recognition that what they were doing was illegal. This could exacerbate the risk of texting by taking drivers’ eyes further from the road and for a longer time.”

One theory comes from the University of Glasgow in Scotland where, via tests conducted in a driving simulator, researchers found a sharp decrease in crash likelihood when participants switched from head-down to head-up displays. This suggests that it might be more hazardous for a driver to text from a device that's hidden from view on the lap or vehicle seat, HLDI thinks.

This stuff is important, especially in terms of highway safety, for texting in general is on the increase. According to HLDI’s research, wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47%from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too, rising about 60% in one year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009.

This is a concern because “distracted driving” causes crashes – a lot of them. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with distraction-related fatalities representing 16% of overall traffic fatalities in 2009.

The question, though, is this: if state laws can’t change driver behavior when it comes to texting/call phone use while operating a motor vehicle, what will?

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