Text Messaging While Driving Laws: Do They Decrease Safety?

Controversial study riles Secretary of US Department of Transportation

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Text Messaging While Driving Laws: Do They Decrease Safety?

Over the past two years, the hazards of texting while driving have become a major focus of US safety regulators at both the state and federal levels. For instance, last year Federal employees were prohibited from texting while operating a government vehicle or when driving their own vehicle when on official government business.

The US Department of Transportation, under Secretary Ray LaHood's leadership, banned truckers and bus drivers from texting while driving in January. Now Secretary LaHood wants to ban the drivers of hazardous materials from texting while driving as well.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 30 states, Washington D.C. and Guam now ban texting while driving, up from 19 states in 2009. Washington State was the first to pass a text messaging while driving ban in May of 2007, with its enforcement beginning 1 January 2008.

So, when Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) stated in a press release on Tuesday that its researchers found:

"...  reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers,"

Secretary LaHood, a very strong advocate for reducing distractions of all kinds while operating an type of vehicle, got more than a little riled.

Getting Secretary LaHood even more steamed was what the press release went on to say:

"In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes. This finding is based on comparisons of claims in 4 states before and after texting ban, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states."

Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, then said:

"Texting bans haven't reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in 3 of the 4 states we studied after bans were enacted. It's an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws."

Researchers at the HLDI hypothesize that drivers texting might be keeping their cell phones low and out of sight, and thus might "exacerbate the risk of texting by taking drivers' eyes further from the road and for a longer time."

Mr. Lund cautioned that "finding no reduction in crashes, or even a small increase, 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."

Secretary LaHood was not appeased by the caveat. He wrote in his Fastlane blog that the HLDI report was "misleading."  Secretary LaHood said "we all know that good laws don't mean anything without tough enforcement."

Secretary LaHood went on to write that when coupled with good enforcement, bans on texting and cell phone use do work on making the highways safer. He cited pilot programs in Hartford, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York, as examples. Other localities are just starting to enforce the new laws passed.

For instance, starting today in Massachusetts, drivers under 18 are banned from using cell phones altogether, while other drivers are banned from reading, writing or sending text messages. In a story in today's Boston Globe,

"Using that BlackBerry or iPhone to check e-mail or surf the Internet while driving has become illegal. Those caught texting will face a $100 fine for a first offense, while 16- and 17-year-old drivers will face more severe penalties, including a $100 fine, 60-day loss of license, and a mandatory retraining course."

A second offense means a $250 fine and a 180-day suspension, while a third or subsequent offense brings a $500 fine and one-year suspension.

The Massachusetts State Police have promised strict enforcement of the law.

[Update: A Globe story on police enforcement of the new law can be found here.]

The only exception to the ban is a phone call or text reporting an accident or disabled vehicle, seeking medical attention, or otherwise notifying police, fire, or safety officials in an emergency, the Globe reports.

The Globe also has an article today on various phone apps that can be used, in the Globe's words, to "work around" the Massachusetts texting ban.

Secretary LaHood also implied in his post that studies like that done by the HLDI only served to undermine his and other efforts to ban texting and other forms of distracted driving.

Interestingly, the HDLI works on behalf of the insurance industry and presumably the industry would like to see such texting bans be effective.

However, HDLI also apparently believes that the push on distracted driving creates convenient political villains but takes away from the focus on crash avoidance technologies which, in its opinion, are more effective from an automobile safety perspective (see a recent HDLI PDF report titled, "Sidetracked").

So, was Secretary LaHood shooting the messenger, was the HLDI study misleading as charged, or is it a combination of both being partially right?

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