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.
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.
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.