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.