Texting and driving ban doesn’t, uh, work?

A few weeks ago, the Grand Forks City Council banned texting and driving because it’s considered dangerously distracting. Today, the Highway Loss Data Institute, affiliated with the insurance industry, said bans in four states have not reduced highway accidents and may have caused them to go up.

What the smurf?

I called the HLDI and Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman, was kind enough to answer my questions. I sort of imagined they got lots of media calls — people are fascinated with texting and driving, which is so tempting and yet so obviously stupid – and a reporter from a small-town paper would be lucky to get anything.

Anyways, it’s not that texting bans do not cause a reduction in texting and driving. That can’t be gleaned from the data, she said. All it shows is that when you compare drivers in the states with bans and the neighboring states that don’t have bans you see either a comparable accident rate or you see an increase.

It could be that texting and driving has decreased, in which case drivers have found something new to distract them. It could be texting and driving has stayed the same, in which case law enforcement isn’t very effective. It could be that drivers are more furtive about texting — say, texting in their lap instead of on the steering wheel — in which case it could explain why accident rates went up a little.

Traditionally, the way you change driver behavior is with a two-prong approach: Public education and law enforcement. That is, tell people it’s dangerous and then punish them if they do it. It worked for seatbelt usage, but, with texting and driving, it’s harder to see people texting if they want to hide it.

I was pleased to be able to throw some prior research at Anne to get her take. As I mentioned in an earlier post, national data shows accident rates have been dropping for years in spite of increase in travel and increase in the popularity of cell phone usage, especially texting in recent years. I suggested that maybe whatever experiments showing texting and driving to be dangerous were flawed because, in real life, people are more careful.

She said that research shows that cell phone use is absolutley associated with accidents. In fact, HLDI’s sister organization the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety compared phone records with accidents and found that cell phone use increased risks of accidents four-fold.

Better car technology, she suggested, has reduced accident rates faster than cell phone use has increased them. That technology may hold the key to resolving this problem and she said HLDI is looking into them.

Here’s what IIHS has to say about technology in regards to the problem of driving and talking on the phone:

Automakers are rolling out crash avoidance systems that warn drivers when they are not paying attention. Some systems may intervene if the system judges that a crash is imminent. Systems like lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning promise to prevent many kinds of distracted driving crashes, not just those that result from cellphone use (see Status Report, April 17, 2008). But this isn’t a quick fix. Most new vehicles don’t have crash avoidance features, and it will take some time before the systems are in wide use as newer vehicles supplant older ones. Plus the effects of these technologies on real-world crashes have not yet been established.

It is possible that technologies that prevent drivers from using phones may help, too. Several blocking technologies are on the market and more are on the way. They are designed to block or limit driver cellphone communications while a car is in motion. Most can be set up so drivers can always phone a family member or other prespecified contact, and passengers still get to use their phones even if drivers’ are blocked. Calls to 911 and other emergency numbers aren’t prohibited. Companies mainly market these technologies to parents of teen drivers and business and fleet owners to keep tabs on employees. Costs range from about $35 to $200 a year, including monthly service fees. Some companies offer free trials. It is unclear how well these systems will work and if drivers will accept them.

Now that I think about it, I have two observations.

First, this technology is relatively new and even today few cars have them so they can’t possibly have had an impact on accident rates over the last 20 years. The main thrust of auto safety technology as I understand it has been better survivability after accidents have occurred. So they might reduce fatalities, but would have no impact on the number of accidents.

Second, if the ineffectiveness of texting bans is because enforcement is difficult, what explains the ineffectiveness of banning cell phone use by drivers? When somebody’s holding an object to his or her ear, it’s as clear as if he or she is wearing seatbelts and that’s proven easy to enforce.

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