A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) claims that while most states have texting bans, there have been no reductions in crashes after the laws took effect and instead the results show a slight increase in crashes, especially for young drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were quick to respond, questioning the conclusions and citing success seen with test programs. Despite IIHS findings, it is clear that distracted driving is a growing problem, and one that warrants more attention.
Secretary LaHood responded to the study saying it was “completely misleading” and IIHS and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) “have been working to discredit national anti-distracting driving efforts over the last year.” He continued to say that “Tough laws are the first step and enforcement must be next.”
The IIHS/HLDI findings are based on comparisons of claims in four states (California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington) before and after texting bans compared with claims in nearby states without bans. They found that three out of the four states had an increase in damage from crashes after the bans. Washington saw a 1 percent increase in crashes after the ban, Minnesota 9 percent and California 12 percent. Washington’s results weren’t significant.
This new study follows an earlier IIHS study that found that drivers continue to talk and text despite the dangers and bans.
One reason that IIHS claims could be the reason for an increase in crashes after the bans are that drivers moved their phones out of sight and on their lap to hide their illegal behavior, which might have kept their eyes off the road for longer and exacerbated the risk. IIHS and HLDI President Adrian Lund says, “The point of texting bans is to reduce motor vehicle crashes, and by this essential measure, the laws are ineffective.”
NHTSA’s research finds that in 2009 nearly 5,500 people died in distracted driving accidents and another half million more were injured. And the problem is likely larger than the fatalities show, especially since there isn’t a standard for reporting. Secretary LaHood’s response to the IIHS/HLDI study also states, “Today’s HLDI-IIHS report fails to reconcile with previous research supported by HLDI-IIHS showing that drivers are four times as likely to crash if using a handheld device while driving.”
So far, 30 states plus the District of Columbia ban texting, eight states have bans for specific drivers—mostly young people, and 12 states have no bans at all, but it is expected that those states will add bans within the next 2 years.
At the recent Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C., details were announced on the effectiveness of pilot enforcement campaigns in Syracuse, NY, and Hartford, CT, called “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in Another.” After six months of stepped-up enforcement of each state’s texting and hand-held cell phone bans, texting while driving declined 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse. Further, hand-held cell phone use was reduced by 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse. A national campaign cannot yet exist until more states pass bans, but these pilots can serve as a model for other states who want to increase enforcement on their own.
The IIHS study didn’t address the enforcement aspect of the bans, nor the role of accompanying marketing and signage. It is clear that laws will not work without stepped up enforcement and visibility, which is what NHTSA sought to establish and document with the pilot enforcement campaigns in Connecticut and New York.
This isn’t the first time IIHS and NHTSA have disagreed on safety priorities. An earlier report from IIHS said that speeding and running red lights are more important traffic safety issues rather than unintended acceleration and distracted driving, which have been among the government’s recent safety priorities.
As studies and debate continue, it is clear that distracted driving is dangerous. Simply put, don’t do it.
For more on distracted driving see our related reports:
What’s next for combating driver distractions?
How to reach teen drivers
Social networking on the road
Implementing laws and campaigns
States address cell-phone dangers
How to best manage driving distractions
Eyes on the road for the upcoming 2010 Distracted Driving Summit