Even as U.S. traffic fatalities continue a steep decline, the insurance industry is raising serious questions about the effectiveness of laws aimed at curbing distracted driving. Cell-phoning and text-messaging behind the wheel, the targets of these laws, were blamed for nearly 5,500 deaths last year, about one-sixth the national total.
But, in a study released this week, the insurance company-funded Highway Loss Data Institute found that collisions actually rose in several states, including Minnesota, after they imposed bans on texting while driving. Earlier this year, the same group issued similar dispiriting results from prohibiting hand-held cell phone use by drivers.
“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all,” said Adrian Lund, the institute’s president, adding that the findings “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood condemned the study as “completely misleading.” He said other research has proven the value of tough traffic safety laws, strong enforcement and increased public awareness in battling carnage on the highways. At the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that overall traffic fatalities fell another 9.2 percent in the first six months of 2010, to a rate likely to produce fewer than 30,000 deaths for the entire year. Until 2008, U.S. traffic deaths exceeded 40,000 for years.
There’s an apples-and-oranges discrepancy here. Instead of deaths, the insurance studies count collision claims, the key factor in insurers’ bottom lines. But if lives are being saved, most folks not in the insurance business can tolerate more crashes. Plus, it’s fair to ask how much impact relatively new distracted driving laws are having on either trend in the absence of widespread public awareness and enforcement.
The insurance study’s authors speculate that texting bans, now in effect in Minnesota and 30 other jurisdictions, may be inducing drivers to lower their hand-helds to avoid police detection. That would force drivers’ eyes further from the road. And maybe that’s why a study in New York state, which bans both hand-held cell-phones and texting, found that police ticketed nearly 15 times as many drivers for the former than the latter. Or maybe it’s just harder for cops to spot texting than a phone to the ear. (Minnesota bans hand-held cell phoning only for novice teen drivers.)
And, finally, crashes might be increasing simply in tandem with more use of those little communications devices, regardless of traffic laws. Overall texting in the United States rose from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion last year. Wireless phone subscriptions rose by 92 million in just 4-1/2 years ending in December 2009.
“Noncompliance is a likely reason texting bans aren’t reducing crashes,” the Highway Loss Data Institute suggested. This seems obvious. In fact, NHTSA estimates that 812,000 U.S. drivers are using cell phones at any given daylight moment. And 70 percent of drivers told AAA pollsters that they use their phones on the road, although nearly as many consider it a serious safety threat.
We don’t blame laws against murder when the homicide rate goes up, even though nearly everyone understands them and authorities diligently enforce them. Drunken driving and failure to secure seat belts didn’t instantly disappear when new traffic laws were enacted, but over time those hazards have been significantly reduced. Instead of rolling back laws against distracted driving, we need to give them the time and resources necessary to educate the driving public and step up their enforcement.