Traffic safety advocates condemn distracted driving as a major traffic hazard on the road, with cellphones being a key culprit. A number of states have passed laws that ban talking or texting on handheld cellphones. But are the bans really doing anything to improve traffic safety?
A new report from the California Office of Traffic Safety indicates bans on using handheld cellphones behind the wheel are effective. A comparison of California crash records by the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that from the time California's ban went into effect in 2008 to two years later, the number of traffic deaths declined by 22 percent and the number of traffic deaths involving drivers who were using handheld cell phones declined by 47 percent.
A note of skepticism
However, the industry-backed Insurance Institute for Highway Safety isn’t convinced of the California study’s accuracy.
In 2010, the nonprofit institute ran its own studies in California, Connecticut, New York and Washington, D.C. -- all of which have bans on drivers' use of handheld cellphones. The study compared the states’ traffic safety data with that of nearby states that don't have such bans. The institute found no substantial swing in the number of crashes in the states with and without bans on handheld cellphones. The institute's conclusion: The bans didn’t make any difference.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the highway safety institute, suspects that’s still the case in California, despite the Office of Traffic Safety’s optimistic outlook.
“They found a drop in crashes,” Rader acknowledges, “but crashes are dropping across the board.”
Rader says the California study is flawed because it didn’t include data from a "control" state that doesn't have a cellphone ban on the books. “It’s important to have a control, so that you can dial out some things that can skew results, such as effects of the economy with people driving less,” he says.
The California Office of Traffic Safety stands behind its study. Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the office, points out that the highway safety institute's study was based on insurance claims, not crash reports. “Not every crash is claimed, and not every claim talks about cellphones," Cochran says. "It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison.”
Cochran also dismisses Rader's complaint about the lack of a "control" state. “In addition to comparing injuries and fatalities before and after implementation of the law, the study also compared cellphone to non-cellphone-related injuries and fatalities,” Cochran says.
Where the bans are
Regardless of whether you side with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the California Office of Traffic Safety, cellphone use by drivers is dangerous. The National Safety Council estimates that nearly one-fourth of all crashes each year can be attributed to cellphone use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blames at least 3,092 traffic deaths in 2010 on distracted driving, with cellphone use being among the distractions.
The National Transportation Safety Board and other groups have called for a nationwide ban on talking and texting while driving, but that hasn't happened yet. Talking on a handheld phone while driving is illegal in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington and the District of Columbia. Texting while driving is illegal in 35 states and D.C.
The safety board's recommendation, issued in December 2011, hasn't been adopted by federal lawmakers. But the board's action is likely to lead to more cellphone bans at the state level. "States aren't ready to support a total ban yet, but this may start the discussion," says Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Cellphone laws and insurance rates
If you are in a state that prohibits using a handheld cellphone while driving, will auto insurers lower their rates, particularly if evidence surfaces that the ban has led to fewer crashes?
It’s not likely, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. She says data are simply one component of how rates are set. “One study isn’t going to sway companies to lower auto insurance rates,” she says. “Companies look at records over time before they make determinations.”
Besides, Worters says, cellphones aren't the only cause of crashes involving distracted driving. There are “distractions of all kinds – texting, eating, changing radio stations, even having an argument on the phone while using hands-free,” she says.