A recent US survey of 700 teens by Harris Interactive for State Farm Insurance found that while 55% of 14- to 17- year old learner/novice drivers think drinking and driving is a deadly risk, only 36% assess the risk of texting and driving similarly and fewer believe they could crash while texting and driving than while driving impaired. Researchers say these results indicate the degree to which interactive technology “permeates the lifestyle of many young people.”
Another implication, of course, is that teens believe they are more than capable of multi-tasking while driving. Study reports cite the latest US Department of Transportation statistics linked to distracted driving: in 2008, 5,838 deaths in 5,307 crashes; in 2009, 5,474 deaths in 4,898 crashes. Cell phones are directly implicated in 1,000 of the 2009 distracted driving crashes and in 22% of the fatal crashes of distracted drivers under 20 years of age. Drivers aged 30 to 39 were the next group “more likely to be involved in a fatal crash where a cell phone was a distraction.”
These findings beg questioning the effectiveness of motor vehicle laws banning texting and driving. A new study from researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute—an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)— has concluded not only that they are not effective but may actually increase the risk. The suggestion is that ignoring the ban involves being more furtive about texting, which then is even more distracting. This conclusion comes from an examination of collision-based insurance claims in four US states—California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington—in the months immediately before and after texting was banned.
Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS said, “In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws.” Researchers aren’t just speculating about non-compliance with the anti-texting laws: among under 25-year-old drivers—the group most likely to text while driving— 45% actually reported texting and driving despite the law. (In ban-free states, 48% of drivers confessed to texting while driving.) Reports of this study cite a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute 2009 study concluding that collision risk is 23 times greater for text-messaging drivers than for drivers distracted by other activities.
From Alberta a recent study by Alan Shiell, a University of Calgary professor of public health economics has concluded that banning use of cell phones including hands-free phones while driving in Alberta would save annually: $6 million in health care costs and $30 million in other costs. Says Professor Shiell, “To me it’s a no-brainer.” Professor Shiell also said he prefers banning hands-free, blue tooth type devices as well because of research suggesting that the distraction comes from the conversation itself.
However broad or limited the “cell phone ban while driving” may be, enforcement of the law, and a change in public attitude, will come from the easy availability of cell phone records, in the event of a crash.