Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Study: Cell phone, texting bans don't reduce accidents

After all the hype and hoopla about "distracted driving" and the implementation of new bans using cell phones in school zones and on texting while driving, why am I not surpised to see this? Via AP:
A new insurance industry study has found that state laws banning the use of handheld devices to make calls or send text messages while driving haven't resulted in fewer vehicle crashes.

The study, released Friday by the Highway Loss Data Institute, examined insurance claims from crashes before and after such bans took effect in California, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.

The organization found that claims rates didn't go down after the laws were enacted. It also found no change in patterns compared with nearby states without such bans.

Adrian Lund, the group's president, said the finding doesn't bode well "for any safety payoff from all the new laws."

Six states and the District of Columbia ban talking on a hand-held device for all drivers, while 19 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Austin's texting ban went into effect yesterday and the city has posted signs prohibiting cell phone use in school zones. Expect these measures to have a similar (i.e., zero) effect on safety.

There's a disconnect in the pro-ban arguments I've seen that IMO needs more vetting before these laws are ready for prime time. We're told repeatedly, including in the past by this same insurance industry think tank (which is one reason I consider this study notable), that "drivers were four times more likely to be in a crash while using cell phones." Often someone will add that this is the same risk that may be statistically attributed to a driver whose blood alcohol content is over .08, the legal limit beyond which it's illegal to drive. Further, we're told, the risk from cell phones is the same whether the driver holds the phone or uses a hands-free device.

What's missing is any context regarding how cell-phone risks compare to other distractions.

For example, a common trope in journalism on this topic quotes some politician or researcher describing how they personally were on the road, talking on the cell phone, and were surprised to discover they'd missed their exit without even noticing! "Gosh, I didn't realize how distracted I was," they'll exclaim. In last year's big round of media on the topic, it seemed like every other article included a version of that anecdote. But the other day my wife and I were in the car having a rather detailed conversation on family matters and I missed two turns on the same trip, both directly attributable to being distracted by the conversation I was having. No cell phone involved.

So if it turns out that talking to a passenger is just as distracting as using a cell phone (or more so, since one also must process facial expressions, body language, etc.), will we then ban passenger conversations? The fact that hands-free phones distract as much as hand-helds means that the distraction is a function of your brain being engaged in conversation. That's not an indictment of the technology.

This well-intentioned impulse to ban any activity deemed remotely dangerous - usually in a statute named after a dead child whose parents insist that Johnnie or Susie would be alive if only this or that law had passed - in practice seldom achieves the promised results. Unfortunately, instead of go back and repeal the laws that didn't work, next time around the Lege inevitably finds another outrage, new tragedies, new dead children to name bills after, and then applies the same failed formulas without first determining if a new criminal law would really help.

Not every social problem can be solved by cops, courts, jails and prisons. Some may be solved through regulation. Or tax policy. Or land use decisions. Or public works expenditures. Liability for traffic accidents is meted out every day in civil court; in this case, perhaps that's the venue best suited to create meaningful disincentives. Or maybe, God forbid, some problems in the world needn't be solved by government at all.

If using criminal law enforcement to ban cell phone use or texting has no measurable benefit in so far as reducing accidents, the only other reason to pass such laws is to "send a message," as the hackneyed saying goes. And because nobody reads the traffic code in their spare time, if that's your goal you'd be better off buying TV time and repealing unnecessary laws that don't make us safer.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Grits: "Or maybe, God forbid, some problems in the world needn't be solved by government at all."

Dang it, Grits! You'd make a darn good Republican! It's too bad that Obama and those Democrats in Washington don't think the way that you do! Maybe they'd have spent the last year actually trying to put folks back to work instead of trying to shove that health care debacle down our throats!

DarthVelma said...

A couple of quick things. The accident rates from that study may not have been affected because people didn't actually follow the new laws. I will neither confirm nor deny whether I've broken the texting ban in my state. :)

Also, the idea of banning conversations with passengers gave me a giggle. We've essentially done that to my mom. She's not allowed to talk while driving, since she has this nasty tendency to look at whoever she's talking to instead of looking at the road. But...that's only a family rule...the legislature doesn't need to get involved. *snort*

Anonymous said...

"And because nobody reads the traffic code in their spare time, if that's your goal you'd be better off buying TV time and repealing unnecessary laws that don't make us safer."

Since drivers do not obey posted speed limits, run red lights and stop signs, fail to yield the right of way and continue to drive drunk, both of which cause accidents, should we abolish those laws too?

By the way 7:42, cell phone texting by commercial vehicle operators was banned last week by the federal DOT.

Ryan Paige said...

I would venture to say that most red lights and stop signs achieve their goals of stopping traffic. While it's obvious that some people do run lights or signs, I'm sure those are a small percentage of the total number of cars on the road at any given time (and I would argue that the posted speed limits, while routinely ignored on many roads, are a factor in how fast most people do drive).

I'm not a big phone talker, so doing without in the car is not a big deal for me, but I have certainly had many times when I got lost in thought and missed an exit or later didn't even remember parts of the drive. I was distracted by my own brain without an external conversation going on at all, which I assume would be difficult to legislate against.

gravyrug said...

I like the idea of having a civil matter, rather than criminal. If your cell phone use is a factor in an accident, you are more liable for the damages. Won't take insurance companies long to make cell phone use while driving damned expensive.

Anonymous said...

While we're at it, I think we should decriminalize the seat belt law. This too, is a personal decision thata people make that really harms no one other than themselves. Here again, another intrusion by the government into our personal freedoms. What say you, Grits?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Re: the seat belt law, stop signs, and all these other red herrinngs, if you show me evidence that those things have "no measurable benefit in so far as reducing accidents" (or in the case of seat belts, accident-related injuries), I'd be the first to agree they were unnecessary. Are you claiming that's the case? If not, the analogy doesn't fit.

Such laws are only good if they actually have some real-world benefit. If they're just part of some politician's PR campaign, toss 'em.

Don said...

anon. 7:42: Right on! Those Republicans are all about preserving individual freedoms, witness Homeland Security, War on Drugs, War on Terror, DWI exceptions to the Constitution SCOTUS decisions, THWPC decisions and actions, etc. etc. etc.
BTW THWPC means "To Hell With Probable Cause". Don't feel bad if you didn't know. I just made it up.

Anonymous said...

Well Don, how are the democrats preserving a truck drivers freedom by now telling him he cannot text while driving?

Anonymous said...

This seems to suggest more attention should not be placed on traffic issues instead the arguement is something like a single airplane crash should lead to public outcries while more than 40,000 deaths on the roads should not generate much response.

Silence Dogood said...

Scott,

This is your best post so far this year. I concur 100%.

Nicholas said...

Enforcing such bans is sketchy at best.

My biggest problem is that it gives cops yet another reason for contact.
There are already a PLETHORA of traffic violations that can get someone pulled over(pretext situations included), law enforcement doesn't need another.

dan_The_man said...

Why don't they make eating, drinking (non-alcohol), and personal grooming (applying makeup, fixing hair) illegal as well.

I can see the future...10,000 Americans arrested today for picking their noses while driving. We've gotta keep those prisons full!

all sarasm is completely intentional

Anonymous said...

Grits,
Though I normally agree with you on the majority of issues you express a position on, on this one I believe you are wrong - in particular, dead wrong. Your point is well taken that any cell phone law, as currently marketed by politicians is too weak to be effective which is why the insurance industry study says the laws, as implemented, don't work.

To be effective three things need to take place. First the law has to basically state that NO cell phone use in an auto is legal. Similar to no video screens in the front seat of an auto (and we are now starting to see more screens with internet access showing up that will lead to accidents in the near future but that's for another discussion). Second, active enforcement. Not thrilled with another excuse for police interaction but that is an unrelated issue (Nicholas is correct but in reality they'll stop you now thanks to the traffic code - did you use that turn signal for your lane change?). No enforcement, no benefits from the law. Finally, as you have previously remarked, plenty of advertisement reiterating the danger of cell phone use.

It has worked for DUIs and it can work for cell phones. But no politican will allow them to be outlawed. $$ and votes - we've gotten used to the efficiency of them. As for the talking driver, it is such a distraction that teens are denied the right to transport lots of friends for that very reason. With adults, we hope that most are past the point of distraction, but with cell phones we will never be past that point. Ever notice how almost every time you get caught behind a slow mover in traffic, the moron is gabbing away on his/her cell?

But the ultimate test is this. Would you want the pilot of that Southwest jet to be on his phone while landing his 737 with you and your family in it? He has a lot more experience that some of the smucks on the roadway (and a co-pilot) but even he knows its a no-no for his, and everyone else's safety.

Enjoyed, as always, the discussion. :~)

D.A. Confidential said...

I happen to agree with anon 5:20. The stats may not have captured a positive effect (and we all know how rock solid stats are, right?!) but you can't expect me to agree that someone texting, or even chatting away, on their phone is driving as safely as someone not doing those things.
Should we ban talking to our wives while driving? No, because it's not realistic. People seem to forget that driving a car isn't a God-given right. If you do it in a careless or dangerous way, I think the law should step in to restrain you.
After all, this one time I was driving and talking on the phone and I totally ran over a puppy and two nuns. Fortunately it was legal back then.

taste said...

How long before someone flees the scene of an accident without helping someone with a serious injury ... because they wanted to avoid the ticket for texting while driving?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:20, thanks for the kind words. You write that there was no impact on crashes because the laws are "too weak to be effective" so they should be made more draconian. This is a very typical argument by enhancement supporters of all types. When criminal penalties don't solve a problem in the real world, it must be because punishments are not harsh enough, etc., not because the strategy has failed. This mentality is similar to the old saying, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When hammering a screw doesn't work, all folks know to do is hammer harder instead of reach for the screwdriver.

Also, there are MANY things people do in their cars that would be out of bounds for the 737 pilot, so that's hardly the "ultimate test." In fact, it's a completely false one - those are commercial operators and flying and driving are different breeds of cat.

DAC, writes "you can't expect me to agree that someone texting, or even chatting away, on their phone is driving as safely as someone not doing those things." Except no one is asking you to agree to that, you're arguing against a position no one has taken.

Here's the question that particular red herring avoids: Would you agree that someone chatting on their phone is driving as safely as someone engaged in an intense conversation with their wife in the passenger's seat?

Unless you're also going to ban my wife from my car, it makes no sense to ban me talking to her on the cell phone, which is probably less distracting. You say banning her isn't "realistic," but neither is Austin's texting ban - cops can't tell if someone looking down in their lap is texting, dialing, getting GPS directions or checking the time. It's not practical to enforce at all.

Bottom line, criminal law is the wrong venue to address this problem. Address it through the civil courts. Address it through the regulatory process: The FCC could make a rule that cell phones must be manufactured in such a way that they don't work moving faster than 15 mph, for example, or cars could be required to install a Faraday cage that would prevent cell signals from inside. There are MANY ways to approach this problem but all anybody ever suggests is more crimes, more punishments, more cops, etc.. It's the only solution most pols can ever think of for anything.

Anonymous said...

Recognize it for what it is; another revenue flow enhancer and opportunity to engage in roadside fishing expeditions. Soon enough, the bluetooth enabled auto will report to roadside scanners everything from souls on board to engine operation to seat belt use to cell phone mode and use. You'll get the cite in the mail or have some goon knocking your door with a warrant to take you away. (NHTSB has already proposed data recorders be standard equip. and monitor over 50 separate data streams)

dan_The_man said...

Realistically, don't we already have a law against dangerous/reckless driving, not signaling, failing to merge safely?

Whether a person is on the phone or not, these laws could/should be enforced on a more regular basis, but they are not. This is a knee jerk "solution" that allows LEO's to pull anyone over that looks like they are using a cell phone for texting.

I have always been a big proponent for enforcing the laws that we have in place before writing new laws to correct the behavior that old laws were written to correct.

palmcoastinjurylaw.com said...

Distractions are common to our human plight and frequently cause accidents. The cell phone heightens the number and type of distractions motor vehicle operators are confronted with, and tragically, a second or two can cause horrendous events. While regulation is probably helpful, the best bet is to leave it to the civil system to hold those who cause accidents responsible.

Jeanette K. said...

I think the bottom line is that distracted drivers are going to always be distracted whether they're texting, talking or simply just not paying any attention. Good drivers would never fathom text messaging behind the wheel!

Anonymous said...

Police states oppress individual rights and limit the freedom of citizens. Thanks to Grits for defending my right to text and drive.

simacom said...

maybe so, i guess the accident happend cause of the human itself. not because the technology. why do we debate about it? ^^

Cell Phone

Nicholas Sullivan said...

The accident rates from that study may not have been affected because people didn't actually follow the new laws.Auto Accident Attorney Houston

Anonymous said...

Although our Government(S) continue to try; legislating solutions does not work. If it does, lets make drugs against the law!!!

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