Saturday, July 18, 2015

Texting ban proponent: If new laws don't improve safety, at least they make people 'feel weird'

Better late than never, the Dallas Morning News' Tom Benning offered up an assessment of research regarding the public safety benefits, or rather the lack of documentable safety benefits, from municipal ordinances banning texting and cell phone use, titled, "Do cities' texting-while-driving bans reduce crashes? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯" (July 17). In a nutshell:
Texting or talking on the phone while driving is demonstrably dangerous — a fact that’s backed up by reams of research. There’s no denying either that cellphone use while driving can cause accidents — Austin, even with flaws in the data, saw 70 of those wrecks in 2014 alone.

But banning the practice doesn’t necessarily reduce accidents.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of the imperfect crash data in 12 Texas cities with cellphone rules found no consistent reduction in distracted driving wrecks after cities enacted bans. And that follows equally mixed reviews found by scientific studies on statewide bans on texting or hand-held cellphone use while driving in other states.

“It’s not clear the bans in place have had the desired effect,” said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “There are a lot of issues related to enforcement, data and other things, but that’s the bottom line.”
Regular readers may recall past analyses of traffic accidents in states with texting bans. The story goes on provide this sumamry of the News' research, and others:
To see what impact these ordinances might be having, The News analyzed Texas Department of Transportation crash data for a dozen cities that have passed them. The data focused on wrecks in which cellphone use or distraction was a contributing factor.

But the statistics, which rely mainly on driver accounts from the scene of a crash, raised more questions than they answered.

Several cities saw the crash rate for cellphone-involved wrecks drop after implementing either a texting or a hands-free ordinance. But many of those same cities saw distracted driving crashes, which include the cellphone incidents, actually increase.

Did the ordinance actually reduce cellphone use? Or did it just make drivers even more leery to admit that they had been using their phone? Or did the elimination of one distraction behind the wheel simply lead to others?

Then some cities saw crash rates increase after implementing new rules. Some saw those rates go up and then go down. And some indeed saw an apparent drop in both crash categories.
But there are many variables at play.

In Corpus Christi, for instance, a police spokesman explained that his city’s precipitous drop in those crash rates was likely just the result of the fact that the department no longer fills out crash reports on wrecks that don’t cause at least serious injury.

Despite those challenges, some argue that such volatility adds to the need for a statewide ban on texting behind the wheel. That would reduce confusion drivers might face in knowing which cities have ordinances and which ones don’t.

Proving success, however, would still be a challenge.

Scientific studies on statewide bans have relied on insurance claims, hospital visits or crashes overall — and then tried to control for other factors that could affect the data. But that research ends up similarly mixed, with some showing success and others not.
The story concludes by quoting a supporter of texting bans saying that whether they're measurably improving safety doesn't matter. Instead, it's about changing the "culture."
supporters counter that the statistics are just part of the story.

They argue that the push against talking or texting behind the wheel is really about creating a culture change. And for that to take hold, they say, it means setting expectations state by state — and if need be, city by city.

“At some point in the future, it should feel weird and wrong to pick up a phone in the car,” said Beaman Floyd, director of the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions.
Proponents sell these new criminal laws by insisting they'll save lives, and if the data showed an improvement, they'd surely claim credit. But when traffic safety promises fail to materialize, all of a sudden the goal was really a "culture change" - not to measurably improve safety but to make people "feel weird and wrong to pick up a phone in the car."

Making people "feel weird" is not a usual or appropriate function for criminal law if there's no correlated public safety benefit. If changing culture is the goal, enforcement money would be better spent on an advertising/PR budget.


DEWEY said...

Make it illegal, and people will change holding the cellphone to their ear to their lap, making it even more distracting.

Anonymous said...

Distracted driving is dangerous, whether it be from intoxication, cell phones, or romantic activity--you can't stamp out everything.

Prison Doc

The Comedian said...

Yes, people will feel really "weird" talking on their cell as they drive along while noting half of their fellow drivers have a cell phone glued to their ear.