Do Talking and Texting Bans Actually Prevent Accidents?

Driver using mobile phoneStates across the U.S. have passed various types of bans on texting and cellphone use while driving. 14 states (not including Florida), plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have banned hand-held cell phone usage and have made it a primary enforcement law so that officers can cite you for this alone. In those states, you have to use a hands-free device like a Bluetooth earpiece or wired earphones while driving. The exceptions to these bans include using your hands to dial a phone number or using the phone to make emergency calls.

38 states, plus D.C., ban all cell phone use by young and inexperienced drivers. Florida has no such ban but, for example, Alabama bans cellphone use by all 16 year olds as well as 17 year olds who have had intermediate licenses for fewer than six months. Georgia bans cell phone use for any driver less than 18 years old. 20 states, plus D.C., ban cell phone use for those driving a school bus.

Finally, almost the entire nation bans text messaging while driving. The holdouts are Arizona, Montana, Missouri, and Texas, although Missouri does ban it for drivers 21 years or younger and Texas bans it for school bus drivers, novices with intermediate licenses, and those in school crossing zones. In 2001, New York was the first to prohibit hand-held cell phone use and the idea spread, though not universally, mostly on the grounds that they make the roads safer. Starting with Washington in 2007, texting bans swept the nation in about five years. Again, most argued that they were necessary to prevent accidents. Now that we have lived with these bans for a number of years, scientists have been trying to answer a question: Do they work?

The Effect of Bans on Crash Risks

The fact is that it is a very hard question to answer. The use of cellphones or other types of distractions are not fully or consistently reported in crash report databases. Police often do not ask, probably because they have learned that drivers do not generally volunteer the information that they were using their phones in violation of the bans, and what other evidence would there be? What is worse, the standard for what counts as distracted driving or improper cell phone use might have changed over the years as the issue has become a greater part of the public discourse. Some states now have official codes for distracted driving, which did not exist before, which can give the impression that distracted driving is increasing when, in fact, it is just being more accurately recorded.

To avoid some of those issues, scientists have used naturalistic studies in which they videotape and monitor drivers and attempt to extrapolate from those observations a person’s crash risk. One such study found that the risk for at-fault crashes and near-crashes increased by 130% when drivers were talking on cellphones and by 280% when dialing phone numbers. However, the scientists observed nearly nine times as many near-crashes as actual crashes and only 17% of actual crashes were reported to the crash databases. This goes to show that the statistics are rather inadequate. Another study shows that teenagers’ crash risk had greatly increased when they dialed numbers, reached for their phones, or texted. Yet another one showed a four-fold increase in crash risk associated with phone conversations.

The Effect of Bans on Driver Behavior

Despite our limited knowledge of the bans’ effects on actual crashes, it is clear that the bans have lasting effects on driver behavior. One study measured drivers’ hand-held use of cellphones for talking before and after the bans in Connecticut, D.C., and New York, based on observers watching traffic. Hand-held usage was estimated to be between 24% and 76% lower than it otherwise would have been seven years after the bans were established. The more publicized the enforcement campaign, the more drivers comply with the ban. A highly publicized enforcement campaign caused hand-held usage to drop 57% in Hartford, Connecticut, while it did not drop at all in a community without the publicity.

However, that is all for talking and the facts are different for texting. First of all, texting while driving is less common. In 2011, one observational survey—they watched drivers stopped at an intersection—found that 1.3% of drivers were texting (although they could have been dialing, browsing, etc.) while 5% were talking using a hand-held method. Secondly, bans do not seem to have much effect on text messaging while driving. Another observational survey showed that drivers in New York and California actually increased their rates of texting while driving after the bans were instituted in those states. A 2009 national telephone survey found no real association between bans and drops in texting while driving for young drivers. Then again, self-reporting is not the best way to gather information on illegal behavior.

The Effect of Bans on Collision Insurance Claims

Another study measured the changes in insurance claims for collisions. When a driver is injured or his car is damaged in a collision, he makes a collision claim with his insurance company. So the study checked to see if people made more or fewer claims like this after the talking and texting bans went into effect in California, Connecticut, D.C., and New York. They also compared the number of claims in these states to those in neighboring states to see if they could discern whether the bans were what made a difference. Counting for all other factors, it appears that the talking and texting bans contributed to slightly fewer insurance claims in California and D.C., but significantly more claims in Connecticut and New York. Some analysts argue that this has to do with people being so committed to texting that they lower their phone to their waist and their eyes follow the phone rather than focus on the road.

This was surprising, especially given that the talking bans clearly were having an effect on the hand-held usage of phones for talking in Connecticut, D.C., and New York. On the other hand, both talking and texting bans seem to have a positive effect on hospitalizations after car crashes. Overall, states with bans saw a seven percent drop versus states without bans.

The bottom line is that more studies are needed to determine precisely what effect these bans are having in terms of population safety.