State laws barring handheld cell phone use by drivers do not reduce crashes according to the first large study on their effects, raising questions about whether bans on texting or other moves to reduce distracted driving will have the benefits safety advocates hope for.
But the study by an arm of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety drew a sharp rebuke from federal officials who called it “irresponsible to suggest that laws banning cell phone use while driving have zero effect.”
The back-and-forth reflect the move by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to make reducing driver distraction and pushing for banning texting behind the wheel a cornerstone issue. LaHood said Thursday that federal and state efforts had only just begun, with two bills working their way through Congress.
The IIHS analyzed crash rates in three states and the District of Columbia after banning handheld cell phone use by drivers, comparing them with rates before the bans were in place and to nearby states that had no such prohibition.
Other studies done by the IIHS and others had shown drivers were four times more likely to be involved in a crash if they were using their cell phones, and that the laws were effective in reducing the number of drivers who held their phones behind the wheel.
“Crashes aren’t going down where handheld phone use has been banned,” said IIHS President Adrian Lund. “This finding doesn’t auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving.”
Michigan lawmakers are poised to join 19 states in barring texting while driving, and Congress is considering two bills to bar the practice nationwide. Six states bar handheld cell phone use, and 21 states block novice drivers from using any type of cell phone.
Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said driver distraction played some role in 15% of highway deaths, or 6,000 people a year.
The IIHS says one issue may be that drivers are simply switching to using hands-free devices with their phones, which have been shown not to reduce the safety risk from distracted driving, or that other distractions remain in place. But crash rates have been fairly steady or declining over the past few years, even as more people with cell phones use them more frequently.
No study has yet attempted to measure the effect of the bans against texting behind the wheel.
NHTSA said outside studies had shown that driver distractions were just as serious a challenge to safety as driving drunk, and that it takes years of laws and enforcement to change behaviors.
“When it comes to distracted driving, we are only at the starting gate,” the agency said in its statement.