Aiming to reduce the number of automobile accidents, a handful of states have enacted handheld cell phone bans for all drivers. However, a new study from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a nonprofit organization funded by the auto insurance industry, suggests that such bans may be failing to make the roads any safer. The study compares the number of automobile collision insurance claims made in states with cell phone bans to the number of collision claims made in neighboring states without cell phone bans, and finds no significant difference between “ban states” and “ban-free states.” There is “no marked downward trend in the cell phone ban states relative to their neighbors, as might be expected of a law intended to keep eyes on the road and minds from wandering.”

The president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and HLDI, Adrian Lund, remarked:

The laws aren’t reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk.

There are at least a couple of reasons why the study’s suggestions about the futility of cell phone bans may be flawed. First, rather than tracking cell phone related collision claims specifically, it tracked all collision claims. Had the study looked at the “number of claims as a direct result of mobile phone use before and after the ban,” perhaps it would have arrived at a different conclusion. Additionally, geography may not be a sensible way to compare state data, so perhaps the study’s comparison of cell phone ban states with neighboring ban-free states was flawed.

The HLDI noted that cell phone bans have succeeded in getting drivers to switch from handheld cell phones to hands-free cell phones while driving. It appears, however, that the problem cell phones pose is not simply that drivers become distracted solely because they must physically hold the cell phone while attempting to drive. Rather, the problem, as summed up by IIHS spokeman Russ Rader, is generally distracted drivers:

Hands-free devices are no less risky than using a handheld phone. And this indicates that the issue is really about the distracted driver. It’s much bigger than drivers using cell phones.

In other words, cell phones are just one of a myriad of ways drivers become distracted. Reaching into the backseat to grab a water bottle, messing with an iPod, dealing with bickering children, putting on lipstick, checking one’s teeth in the mirror, and trying to put ketchup on a chicken nugget all produce the exact same thing cell phones produce: a distracted driver.

More research is needed before we can fully understand the effectiveness of cell phone bans. Moreover, even if such bans do not make a substantial dent in the number of automobile accidents, they may still be beneficial as part of a larger overall public safety message that drivers need to focus more on driving while on the road. My sense, though, is that cell phone bans may be useless, for in today’s ADD-infected, hyper-multitasking society, people will always find some new method of distraction. Sadly, asking drivers to simply focus on the task of driving while on the road is probably too much to ask.

George Gaskin

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