Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Study: Texting bans ineffective

By Jamey Dunn

A study released today found that bans on texting while driving did nothing to reduce traffic accidents, and some states with the ban actually saw an increase in wrecks.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit research group backed by more than 80 insurance companies nationwide, analyzed collision claims from California, which has had a texting ban since 2009, and Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington, which have all had texting bans since 2008. Illinois, which has had a ban on texting while driving since January 1, was not a subject of the study.

The institute compared insurance claims data with stats from before and after the bans, as well as with those of neighboring states that did not have bans. Researchers also considered other factors that can affect collision rates, such as seasonal changes in traffic. The instance of collisions did not go down in any of the states; in fact, it went up a small amount in three of the four states studied. The largest increase was 9 percent in Minnesota. According to the study: “If the goal of texting and cell phone bans is the reduction of crash risk, then the bans have so far been ineffective.”

Anne Fleming, a spokesperson for the Highway Loss Data Institute, said the study is not intended to downplay the dangers of distracted driving but instead to take a stark look at what methods help to prevent it.

She said she hopes officials will “at least accept the results of the study. This doesn’t mean that cell phone bans are useless.” However, she said legislators should not think they have solved the problem by enacting a ban.

Fleming added that difficulties enforcing the law might result in drivers simply ignoring it. A different survey conducted by the institute found texting-while-driving bans did little to stop people from the practice.

But Chicago Democratic Rep. John D’Amico, a sponsor of the Illinois law, said police in the state are making strides when it comes to enforcement. He said if some officers are out on the roads looking only for people texting, they have a much better chance of writing tickets. “It’s not hard to spot. It almost looks like they are drunk drivers.” He said if people start to hear the law is being enforced, they may curb their texting.

The study theorizes that drivers may feel enough threat of being pulled over to try to hide their texting but not enough to stop. That may also contribute to the small increase in accidents after the ban took effect in the four states studied.

From the report: “This unexpected consequence of banning texting suggests that texting drivers have responded to the law perhaps by attempting to avoid fines by hiding their phones from view. If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it.”

Fleming said while enforcement is difficult, education efforts will not solve the problem on their own. “We know from a long history in the field of highway safety that education alone does not work.”

She said solutions could include new technologies such as sensors that help drivers avoid collisions or devices that could block drivers from using cell phones except in emergencies.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval, another sponsor of the Illinois law, agreed that new technologies might hold solutions for the country’s dangerous addiction to texting and talking on cell phones while driving.

“I think legislation that bans cell phone usage while driving are appropriate reactions to this new social dilemma. … If you look at the big picture, I think we have enacted a number of serious measures that are significant. When it comes to changing peoples’ social behaviors, that’s very difficult to regulate, and it’s very difficult to enforce with limited resources,” he said.

Sandoval said people will probably find a way around any law against using their cell phones while driving, so instead, he would like to see the automotive industry make safer options, such as hands-free calling, standard on vehicles.

However, D'Amico said a ban on using cell phones while driving would be a better solution. Illinois currently bans drivers from talking on phones in school and construction zones. He compared a possible ban to laws against driving while intoxicated, which have become more strictly enforced, causing the drunken driving to elicit more of a social stigma than it did in past decades. He said people will eventually see using a cell phone the way people see driving drunk now, and will say: “‘Boy I can’t believe we used to be allowed to do that.’”

Fleming said another study from the institute found hands-free options to be just as dangerous as standard cell phones. However, the same study also found cell phone bans to be ineffective in cutting accidents. Fleming acknowledges that such results are disappointing to those interested in improving driver safety. But, she said, if police can find better ways to catch violators in the act of texting or talking on the phone, bans could help make roads safer.

“We want to keep looking at these laws, and we do want to see whether there are ways to enforce it. … We know from previous policies if we can enforce them, they would help.”

Check back tomorrow for more on enforcement of the texting-while-driving ban in Illinois.

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