Study: Cellphone Bans No Boost for Road Safety

Laws banning drivers from using handheld cellphones while behind the wheel don’t help to reduce crashes, a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute has found.

The institute, which is affiliated with the Insurance Institute forHighway Safety (IIHS), calculated monthly collision claims in NewYork, the District of Columbia, Connecticut and California beforeand after these states passed such laws.

They compared this data to data from nearby jurisdictions that do not have specific laws banning the use of the devices.

The results indicated that there were no reductions in crashes afterlaws requiring drivers to switch to hands-free cellphone usage werepassed.

That was little short of stunning for the IIHS. “We are very surprisedat our findings,” institute spokesperson Anne Fleming toldTechNewsWorld. “We were among the people who conducted the first studythat indicated using a cellphone increased the risk of a crashfour-fold.”

Details of the Study

The IIHS report based on the study states that the risk of crashing goes up four timeswhen a driver is talking on a cellphone whether or not a hands-freedevice is used. However, while cellphone usage has tripled since2000, the risk of crashes has declined.

While state bans on handheld phone usage by drivers has cut suchusage by between one-third and one half, the number of collisionclaims has not declined, the study found.

The IIHS began looking atcrashes long before and after certain jurisdictions passed laws againsthandheld cellphone use.

In New York, for example, the study looked at a period from 22 months beforethe state enacted a handheld cellphone ban on drivers to 25 monthsafter the law was passed, Fleming said. In California, the study began18 months before the state enacted its handheld cellphone ban ondrivers and continued for 12 months after the law was passed.

Surprise at the study’s findings led to more research. “We looked atfederal data files of police reports on crashes,” Fleming said. “Wefound they’re showing the same pattern.”

Stranger Than Fiction

The IIHS should be surprised at the results of its survey; a study bythe Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the results of which were released in July of 2009, found that cellphone usewhile driving does increase the risk of a crash.

In light vehicle cars, a driver dialing a number on cellphone was 2.8times more likely to have an accident or near-accident as anundistracted driver, the study found. Talking or listening to the cellphone increased the risk of an accident by 1.3 times.

For heavy vehicles and trucks, text messaging increased the risk of anaccident by 23.2 times, the study found. Using or reaching for anelectronic device came next, increasing the risk of an accident by 6.7times. Dialing a number on a cellphone increased the risk by 5.9times.

What Happened?

Study or no study, banning handheld cellphone usage makes roads safer, according to Lieutenant Lyn Tomioka of the San Francisco Police Department. “Any enforcement for violations of the cellphone use law will show that accidents are reduced,” Tomioka told TechNewsWorld. “Obviously, people are distracted when texting, and distractions causeaccidents. Even holding your cellphone in front of you and talking ata distance instead of holding it to your ear is dangerous and unsafe.”

The IIHS is groping for answers to the questions raised by its study.”We don’t really know whether talking on the cellphone is all thatdifferent from other driver distractions, and we know that a hugeproportion of crashes is caused by driver distraction,” theinstitute’s Fleming said. “We don’t know if cellphone use is moredistracting than other things.”

If cellphones are more of a distraction than other events, that mightexplain why, even if drivers use hands-free devices with cellphonesin their cars, the number of accidents has remained unchanged.

Another possibility is that drivers find something else to distractthem when they’re using hands-free cellphone devices, Fleming pointedout. Or perhaps it’s simply because few drivers actually follow laws against cellphones and use them just as often as they did before the bans were passed.

The bottom line: Nobody knows for sure what’s going on. “Researchershere and elsewhere are trying to figure out how to scientificallystudy the issue,” Fleming said.

It’s important to find a solution soon — 37,261 people were killed inmotor vehicle crashes in 2008, the latest year for which the IIHS hasdata.

Possible Solutions

Stricter laws may not help because enforcement is very difficult. “We’reskeptical about whether it’s feasible to go so far as to banhands-free cellphone usage because such laws are difficult toenforce,” the IIHS’ Fleming said. It’s rather like getting a speedingticket — only an unlucky few will get caught because the police justdon’t have enough manpower to stop every speeder.

If laws aren’t enough, what can we do? Perhaps we could turn totechnology, Fleming said. “There are technologies being developed herein the United States that will keep a driver from being able to use acellphone while driving,” she pointed out.

One technology that might help is DriveSafe.ly, a text-to-speechconversion software that works on emails and text messages. The application is available from itsdeveloper, ispeech.org, in a free and a paid versions. The paidversion costs US$13.95.

DriveSafe.ly runs on BlackBerry devices and on Android phones. A versionfor the iPhone has been submitted for approvalto the iTunes App Store, ispeech.org CEO Heath Ahrens said.

The company developed DriveSafe.ly after one of its staff members was hurtwhen his car was rammed at a traffic light by someone who was textmessaging while driving, Ahrens told TechNewsWorld. “The accidentmessed up his back, and he had to go for rehab, and even today he’snot the same, so we decided to create an app that would prevent peoplefrom texting while driving,” Ahrens said.

4 Comments

  • Pennsylvania, many years ago, solved this problem of cell phone,texting, lighting a cigarette, or anything else that took a hand from the steering wheel,that is except, "for shifting or hand signaling" Light a cigarestte? Ticket time if it is seen by an officer.

    We need new laws to prevent drivers from texting, while driving? No, two hands on the steer wheel will prevent that. And any other activity while driving. That is the offense; "Operating vehicle without two hands on steering wheel." How do I know this? Personal experience.Now, in concern, trepidation, we clutch the wheel at that driver test—then it is hair repair, lipstick, text, cell phone, et al–all take the eye and attention of the driver from the act of operating safely. The study is flawed. Anything that takes the driver attention away,is improper, and actually is already illegal.

  • I drive a car in a metropolitan area and can observe the habits of many drivers on a regular basis.

    Distraction items definately contribute to accidents on the road – however one thing that seems to be left out of this study –

    is that many drivers do not pay attention to traffic and the environment around them in the first place. Poor driving habits contribute to the accidents on the road – and then the distraction items such as cellphones only further complicate the matter. People change lanes without signalling, do not use the side view or rear view mirrors very often, and don’t observe the flow of the traffic pattern they are driving in. An example -there can be stopped traffic ahead but the driver will continue to accelarate until they reach the jam and suddenly have to hit the brakes. Only then do they bother to look in the mirror to see if the lane next to them is open to move into, and have to swerve or brake again as the car from the other side moves suddenly into the lane without signalling. When weather conditions are severe, such as ice or snow, this type of driving leads to multiple accidents as slamming on the brakes causes all kinds of skidding around. Add the cellphone to this – it’s the icing on the accident cake.

    How about creating a 5 year driving skills test?

  • It doesn’t matter whether or not you have a hands-free version or not. The fact is if you are having a conversation with someone not in the car it distracts you enough to make you a dangerous motorist. You are distracted plain and simple. Your mind is on the telephone call, not the road.

  • All the study proves is:

    Laws banning drivers from using cell phone are ineffective if they don’t have a real penalty and are not enforced!

    In California the law is weak with an insignificant fine and it is NOT enforced! I have had many close encounters with idiots talking on cell phones or texting since the law went into effect. I had to radically swerve to miss a head on collision just a few days ago. I can still see the idiot young girl laughing with the cell phone as she went by half way into my lane across a double yellow line. I don’t think she even saw me! The law has changed nothing because people totally ignore it and so does law enforcement. So, why would statistics change? You would think an organization that deals with safety would be more responsible in considering all factors to determine results of a study!

    What is needed is signal jammers installed in cars as safety requirements to prevent use of cell phones in cars with the motor running.

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