Drivers Distracted by Mobile Tech, Bans Not So Effective
"Every single time someone takes their eyes or their focus off the road -- even for just a few seconds -- they put their lives and the lives of others in danger. Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible and in a split second, its consequences can be devastating."
Those are the words of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, featured on Distraction.gov, the official government website for distracted driving.
Surprisingly though, new data suggests that driver cell-phone bans already in place have not reduced the number of accidents. The Highway Loss Data Institute compared insurance claims in four states that have bans versus areas where drivers can talk freely. The research found no significant difference in the number of accidents.
"The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced handheld phone use and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," said Adrian Lund, president of the Highway Loss Data Institute.
The institute is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an influential nonprofit agency funded by the auto industry that crash-tests new cars to provide safety ratings for insurance companies and consumers.
Good Intentions, Poor Results
Bans against handheld cell-phone use are currently in effect in 17 states and the District of Columbia. At the same time, other states are considering limits on driver cell-phone use, and Congress is investigating the possibility of a nationwide texting-while-driving ban.
The institute said results from the new research weren't intended to undermine such laws, but to point out that they may not have enough teeth.
The studies looked at claims in New York, Connecticut, California and Washington, D.C., both before and after the bans went into effect and compared them with claims in neighboring states with no ban. This method was intended to take into account factors not related to the bans, such as seasonal and economic variations and driving patterns. The data go back to 2001, when New York adopted the nation's first ban.
Driving Analysts Crazy
An earlier study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at drivers' phone records and found that drivers using the phone were four times more likely to be in a crash. That makes the findings of the latest study something of a paradox.
"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," said Lund, who is president of both the IIHS and HLDI. "But we aren't seeing it."
Lund also pointed out that the data does not show an increase in collision claims before the phone bans took effect. "This is surprising, too," he said, "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."
Lund noted that no state currently bans hands-free cell-phone use while driving, although 21 states ban use of any communication device by new drivers. That could account for the ineffectiveness of the ban, as drivers may be just as distracted by conversations without holding a phone.
Driving: Multitasking to the Nth Degree
The Automobile Association of America, which strongly advocates cell-phone bans, considers phone conversations of any kind a dangerous distraction.
"Drivers are being impressed with the idea that driving is some kind of down time and that they need to fill it with some other task," said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesperson for the New York chapter of the AAA. "But driving is the single most dangerous thing the average citizen of our nation can do in the course of their daily existence. It is multitasking to the Nth degree just to operate a vehicle safely."
A June 2003 study of distractions in everyday driving found that cell phones were only part of the problem. Among drivers who agreed to be monitored, 30 percent talked on the phone, 71 percent were observed eating or drinking, 40 percent were reading and writing behind the wheel, 45 percent mixed grooming with driving time, and 91.4 percent divided their attention between the road and the 's audio system.
And that was before the advent of texting. A government study found that texting while driving, not surprisingly, raised the risk of an accident by 23 percent.
An executive order from President Barack Obama recently banned federal employees from texting while driving, affecting some four million workers. The ban was later extended to all drivers of big trucks and buses.
What You Can Do
Distraction.gov, the government advocacy site to prevent distracted driving, offers the following tips, with additional advice available on their site for employers and parents:
Set a good example for your friends and family. Never talk or text on your cell phone while driving.
Before you drive, turn off your phone and put it out of reach. You can turn it back on when you reach your destination.
Vow to talk only when it is safe to do so.
Set your cell phone ringer to "mute" so you won't be tempted to answer it if it rings while you're driving.
Change your voicemail message to let callers know that you won't talk because you're driving, but you'll call back as soon as it is safe to do so.
Drive defensively. Even though you won't drive while distracted, there are others who do.
Manage your time. Driving and multi-tasking don't mix.
Remember that driving time is just for driving. Distracted driving can involve using a cell phone, eating, drinking, grooming, using a GPS, radio/CD channel surfing, and reading.
If you make a call and reach someone who is driving, tell them you'll call them back or ask them to call you when they reach their destination and it's safe to chat.
If you're in the car with someone who is driving while distracted, ask them to please put the distraction away until you reach your destination.
Strengthen the efforts to eliminate distracted driving by adding your voice and experience to community and injury prevention coalitions and advocacy groups.
Find out what the distracted driving law is in your State for adults and young drivers. If your State does not have a cell phone or texting ban, or has limited or a weak distracted driving law, become a champion for legislation. Call or write your State legislators and let them know you support distracted driving laws.