Texting-While-Driving Bans Increase Crashes, Study Says; Rumpus Erupts

By Andrew Moseman | September 30, 2010 12:35 pm

TextingDrivingStates enact laws against texting while driving, hoping to reduce accidents. In the time after those laws go into effect, the number of accidents in those states doesn’t decline. So are the laws a bad idea?

The question arises from a report out this week by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a division of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The study looked at accident rates in Minnesota, California, Washington, and Louisiana before and after those states enacted their texting-while-driving bans. The authors found no reduction in the number of crashes, and actually saw increases in three states. (They also compared those states to others in their regions without bans to ensure that the numbers they’d found weren’t part of a larger trend.)

So what gives? For the IIHS, this is proof that texting laws aren’t doing any good, and might even be doing harm.

It might be that texting laws are making matters worse, causing people to look down into their laps to read messages rather than bringing their devices to eye level where they’re more easily spotted by law enforcement. Given this, enforcement is tricky, too, given that the best hint that someone is texting is that they’re looking at their lap. [Wall Street Journal]

That assertion got Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation, hopping mad. He disputes the IIHS findings by saying that the government has found the opposite.

In April of this year, DOT launched pilot enforcement campaigns in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., to test whether increased law enforcement efforts combined with public service announcements could get distracted drivers to put down their cell phones behind the wheel. The campaign, called “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other,” found that police enforcement can drastically reduce distracted driving behavior.

“Tough laws are the first step and enforcement must be next,” said DOT’s LaHood in a statement released Tuesday. “We know that anti-distracted driving laws can be enforced effectively because two DOT pilot enforcement programs in Hartford and Syracuse prove it. In the last six months alone, hand-held cell phone use has dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse, and texting while driving has declined 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse.” [MSNBC]

The problem is that we’re talking about apples and oranges. The Department of Transportation’s experiment is a small case study of how effective texting laws could be when combined with advertising and enforcement. That IIHS study, on the other hand, is a broad look across the country trying to figure out how things truly panned out when laws went into effect.

So the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s not hard to imagine a small pilot program, in which officers make finding distracted drivers one of their top priorities, achieving those reductions in texting while driving. Neither is it hard to imagine that across the country, where officers have many other simultaneous priorities and deal with the enforcement problems noted above, the effect would be mixed or negligible.

Lon Anderson, mid-Atlantic spokesman for AAA, said the institute findings indicated the failure of state legislatures to provide law enforcement with effective laws. “We have, unfortunately, set the police up for failure,” he said. “Would good laws strictly enforced do the job? In our opinion, yes.” [Washington Post]

Both insurers and government transportation gurus want to see fewer accidents, but this scuffle is a telling divergence of opinions about how to get those crash numbers down. Secretary LaHood has made anti-texting laws one of his top priorities: He strongly believes that drivers need to get their eyes off the phone and on the road, and thinks highway patrol officers should have the authority to ticket people who don’t get the message. But for spokespeople of the IIHS, phones are just a symptom, not the disease.

IIHS President Adrian Lund says state lawmakers are “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.” [NPR]

Here’s another sound bite, from HLDI vice president Kim Hazelbaker:

“We’d like to see more focus by the government on things that work,” he said, such as technologies like lane departure and blind spot warning systems, and autonomous braking, rather than “continuing to pass laws that don’t make a difference.” [MSNBC]

For the insurance industry, then, it’s not about the phone. We’re the problem: we distracted humans and our pets loose in the car, our eating behind the wheel, our family spats that happen when we should be paying attention to the road. Since humans aren’t robots and you can’t legislate against “distraction,” IIHS would like for cars to either do more of the driving for us or include more automatic reminders to pay attention to what we’re doing.

Related Content:
80beats: Multitaskers Are Bad at Multitasking, Study Shows
Discoblog: Watch Those Thumbs Go! Champion Texter Wins $50,000
Discoblog: Texting and Walking Made Easy With iPhone App
Discoblog: Texting-While-Driving Coach Slightly Delays Appalling Crashes

Image: iStockphoto

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    I’m not sure I agree with the logic of some people that “if people are going to be more dangerous trying to get around the law, we should probably not have the law,” that I’ve seen on some reports of this survey.

    By that logic, there should be no punishment for armed robbery because punishments lead to murders in attempts to not leave witnesses.


  • Bob Collins

    Are there laws against questioning assumptions wrapped in the rhetorc of research?


    Couldn’t someone please notice that the study is full of words like “may” but the quotes from the officials who did the study have declarative phrases like “don’t”?

    This is a really lame study. It may have reached the correct conclusion, but holy smokes, that methodology!

  • Cory

    @1: There’s a huge difference between a minor crime of negligence (like texting while driving) and an intentionally harmful act. Much like the drug prohibition, if a behavioral law causes more harm than good, it should cease to exist.

    And “that logic” is irrelevant simply because there’s no evidence of such a reality with armed robbery. If it turned out that a new law against it actually resulted in an increase in armed robbery, it would most definitely be time to appraise and adjust it.

  • Brian Too


    ‘…you can’t legislate against “distraction,”…’.

    This is incorrect. You can legislate against distraction, and it has been done. In Ontario they just did such a thing. I just finished reading about it in “Is that smart phone app legal on the road?”, by Jennifer Kavur, ComputerWorld Canada, Sept. 7, 2010.

    That law prohibits activities that diverts your hands or eyes, except for the briefest of intervals. That includes texting, laptops, movies and many modes of cell use. The standard is that any activity that requires just 1 button press to activate is legal. More than that is illegal.

    Furthermore similar legislation exists in all but 2 provinces.

  • http://www.OTTERapp.com Erik Wood

    Business people need to ‘hit the ball over the net’. Teens consider it rude not to reply immediately to texts. Home schedules would grind to a halt without immediate communication. We are conditioned to pursue this level of efficiency but we are all supposed cease this behavior once we sit in our respective 5,000 pound pieces of steel and glass. Anyone can win an argument in a forum like this by saying “Just put the phone away” – but we can see its just not happening.

    I just read that 72% of teens text daily – many text more 3000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook – even with their professors. This text and drive issue is in its infancy and its not going away.

    I decided to do something about it after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver . Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple app for smartphones. I think if we can empower the individual then change will come to our highways now and not just our laws.

    Erik Wood, owner
    OTTER app

  • 57 Chevy

    @erik wood;
    Wow, you have a heavy car. Please don’t text while driving it.

  • NoCell

    If you are driving, then drive. Don’t eat, don’t use your cell phone, don’t play with your GPS, put on your makeup, read the paper….DRIVE. Pay attention. Things happen in a split second.

    We have way to many gadgets in our cars these days! I am really tired of dealing with distracted drivers. I can’t tell you how many accidents I’ve avoided because I was paying attention and the other idiot was on their cell phone. It should be illegal to use a cell phone at all when you’re driving.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppKHT_WqDho Analisa Drain

    Good post. I be taught something tougher on totally different blogs everyday. It can all the time be stimulating to learn content material from different writers and practice a little bit one thing from their store. I’d choose to use some with the content on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll give you a hyperlink in your net blog. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppKHT_WqDho Lorette Carranco

    After research just a few of the blog posts in your website now, and I actually like your manner of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark web site checklist and will probably be checking again soon. Pls check out my web page as well and let me know what you think.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar