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Study: Cellphone Bans No Boost for Road Safety

By Richard Adhikari
Jan 29, 2010 12:03 PM PT

Laws banning drivers from using handheld cellphones while behind the wheel don't help to reduce crashes, a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute has found.

Study: Cellphone Bans No Boost for Road Safety

The institute, which is affiliated with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), calculated monthly collision claims in New York, the District of Columbia, Connecticut and California before and after these states passed such laws.

They compared this data to data from nearby jurisdictions that do not have specific laws banning the use of the devices.

The results indicated that there were no reductions in crashes after laws requiring drivers to switch to hands-free cellphone usage were passed.

That was little short of stunning for the IIHS. "We are very surprised at our findings," institute spokesperson Anne Fleming told TechNewsWorld. "We were among the people who conducted the first study that indicated using a cellphone increased the risk of a crash four-fold."

Details of the Study

The IIHS report based on the study states that the risk of crashing goes up four times when a driver is talking on a cellphone whether or not a hands-free device is used. However, while cellphone usage has tripled since 2000, the risk of crashes has declined.

While state bans on handheld phone usage by drivers has cut such usage by between one-third and one half, the number of collision claims has not declined, the study found.

The IIHS began looking at crashes long before and after certain jurisdictions passed laws against handheld cellphone use.

In New York, for example, the study looked at a period from 22 months before the state enacted a handheld cellphone ban on drivers to 25 months after the law was passed, Fleming said. In California, the study began 18 months before the state enacted its handheld cellphone ban on drivers and continued for 12 months after the law was passed.

Surprise at the study's findings led to more research. "We looked at federal data files of police reports on crashes," Fleming said. "We found they're showing the same pattern."

Stranger Than Fiction

The IIHS should be surprised at the results of its survey; a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the results of which were released in July of 2009, found that cellphone use while driving does increase the risk of a crash.

In light vehicle cars, a driver dialing a number on cellphone was 2.8 times more likely to have an accident or near-accident as an undistracted driver, the study found. Talking or listening to the cellphone increased the risk of an accident by 1.3 times.

For heavy vehicles and trucks, text messaging increased the risk of an accident by 23.2 times, the study found. Using or reaching for an electronic device came next, increasing the risk of an accident by 6.7 times. Dialing a number on a cellphone increased the risk by 5.9 times.

What Happened?

Study or no study, banning handheld cellphone usage makes roads safer, according to Lieutenant Lyn Tomioka of the San Francisco Police Department. "Any enforcement for violations of the cellphone use law will show that accidents are reduced," Tomioka told TechNewsWorld. "Obviously, people are distracted when texting, and distractions cause accidents. Even holding your cellphone in front of you and talking at a distance instead of holding it to your ear is dangerous and unsafe."

The IIHS is groping for answers to the questions raised by its study. "We don't really know whether talking on the cellphone is all that different from other driver distractions, and we know that a huge proportion of crashes is caused by driver distraction," the institute's Fleming said. "We don't know if cellphone use is more distracting than other things."

If cellphones are more of a distraction than other events, that might explain why, even if drivers use hands-free devices with cellphones in their cars, the number of accidents has remained unchanged.

Another possibility is that drivers find something else to distract them when they're using hands-free cellphone devices, Fleming pointed out. Or perhaps it's simply because few drivers actually follow laws against cellphones and use them just as often as they did before the bans were passed.

The bottom line: Nobody knows for sure what's going on. "Researchers here and elsewhere are trying to figure out how to scientifically study the issue," Fleming said.

It's important to find a solution soon -- 37,261 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2008, the latest year for which the IIHS has data.

Possible Solutions

Stricter laws may not help because enforcement is very difficult. "We're skeptical about whether it's feasible to go so far as to ban hands-free cellphone usage because such laws are difficult to enforce," the IIHS' Fleming said. It's rather like getting a speeding ticket -- only an unlucky few will get caught because the police just don't have enough manpower to stop every speeder.

If laws aren't enough, what can we do? Perhaps we could turn to technology, Fleming said. "There are technologies being developed here in the United States that will keep a driver from being able to use a cellphone while driving," she pointed out.

One technology that might help is DriveSafe.ly, a text-to-speech conversion software that works on emails and text messages. The application is available from its developer, ispeech.org, in a free and a paid versions. The paid version costs US$13.95.

DriveSafe.ly runs on BlackBerry devices and on Android phones. A version for the iPhone has been submitted for approval to the iTunes App Store, ispeech.org CEO Heath Ahrens said.

The company developed DriveSafe.ly after one of its staff members was hurt when his car was rammed at a traffic light by someone who was text messaging while driving, Ahrens told TechNewsWorld. "The accident messed up his back, and he had to go for rehab, and even today he's not the same, so we decided to create an app that would prevent people from texting while driving," Ahrens said.

Rakuten Super Logistics
Is "too much screen time" really a problem?
Yes -- smartphone addiction is ruining relationships.
Yes -- but primarily due to parents' failure to regulate kids' use.
Possibly -- long-term effects on health are not yet known.
Not really -- lack of self-discipline and good judgement are the problems.
No -- angst over "screen time" is just the latest overreaction to technology.
No -- what matters is the quality of content, not the time spent viewing it.