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Have Distracted Driving Laws Reduced Crashes? 

Posted in Car Accidents on February 21, 2017

Distracted driving poses a serious threat to our health. According to government research on driver behavior, in 2014 nearly 3200 people were killed and an additional 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle accidents in which distracted driving was a factor.

Distracted driving is defined as any activity that can divert a person’s attention away from their primary task, which is driving. Examples of distracted driving include texting, talking on the phone, eating or drinking, applying makeup, reading maps, consulting a navigation system, even adjusting a radio. Since text messaging requires digital, cognitive, and visual input, it’s often seen as the biggest threat. And we text a lot – according to federal data, we sent nearly 170 billion texts in December 2014 alone. A lot of us text while driving – around 660,000 at any given time.

To reduce the number of distracted driving related crashes, lawmakers have passed sweeping regulations to address texting on the road. Today, nearly every state in the union prohibits it. But are they doing any good?

New York was the first to pass a handheld device provision in 2001. Not only are residents not allowed to text, but they’re not allowed to talk or use their devices (hands-free talking is allowed in some states). Currently, fourteen states have this provision, as well as the District of Columbia. Forty-four states prohibit texting while driving, but allow talking and use of a navigation system.

Texting-Related Bans Save Lives

A review of hospitalization data show that texting bans have led to a decrease in crash-related hospitalizations across all age groups, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health. On average, such hospitalizations have decreased by seven percent. The improvement was most drastic among crash victims aged 22 to 64. Crashes among adolescents and teens, on the other hand, dropped only marginally.

Researchers in the study concluded that these reductions translate into annual prevention of 30 motor-vehicle hospitalizations per hospital (in states with a primary texting ban). This suggests that texting bans work and are improving public health.

Insurance Companies Tell a Different Story

Interestingly, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found conflicting information. While they found bans on hand-held phone use have curbed the behavior of texting behind the wheel, they haven’t produced a subsequent reduction in crashes. According to their analysis, cell phone and texting bans have not reduced the number of crashes reported to insurers, even with strong enforcement.

The institute’s research found that in places with a handheld device ban, such as New York, cell phone conversations dropped by as much as 76 percent. They also found, however, that motor vehicle crash claims haven’t been significantly reduced in the years following the ban.

There are several possible reasons for this – for example, drivers who were on their phones may have been distracted by something else. Another is that drivers may be switching to hands-free calling, which is legal but still provides a cognitive distraction. These drivers would still be distracted by the conversation, even when their hands are on the wheel.

What’s the Final Word on Texting Bans?

It’s important to note that one study analyzed insurance claim data, while the other analyzed hospitalization data. One possible explanation for the cell phone ban data discrepancy is that there are fewer serious crashes producing hospitalization although they may still result in an insurance claim.

Distracted driving still poses a threat to our health. Each year, there are several hundred preventable deaths related to cell phone use. Lawmakers must continue to recognize the efficacy of texting bans in reducing serious injury and encourage states without texting bans to adopt legislation. Together, we can reduce the number of distracted driving deaths.