It's Too Soon to Know the Full Impact of Bans on Cell Phone Use While Driving | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

The Highway Loss Data Institute has created a stir with the release of data showing that traffic accidents resulting in injuries, property damage and insurance claims did not go down after selected states enacted bans on drivers’ use of handheld cell phones and other electronic devices. At the same time, the HDLI noted that its own data show that drivers talking on handheld cell phones are four times more like to have accidents than are drivers who are not using handheld cell phones, PDAs and laptops.

Both sets of data from the HDLI, which is a unit of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, deserve a closer look. That investigation yields the take-away message that drivers should not talk on the phone or send text messages at all while they are behind the wheel.

The newer study indicating that bans on handheld electronic devices may do little to prevent serious traffic accidents has two significant limitations that limit the broad applicbility of its conclusions. First, HDLI researchers considered only insurance claims filed in California (CA), Connecticut (CT), New York (NY), and Washington, D.C. (DC). Currently, 19 states, including Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), restrict the use of handheld electronic devices by adult car and truck drivers. The federal government has also issued broad bans on using cell phones, smart phones and laptops by drivers of federal cars and trucks, interstate truck and bus drivers, and train crews.

The second limitation is that the data used spanned only one “car year”–12 months of use for a single car covered by a single automobile insurance policy–before a state’s cell phone ban took effect and one car year after a ban was enacted. An analysis that covered more states and longer periods could show a greater impact for bans on using handheld devices to make phone calls or send text messages.

All the legislative and regulatory accidents mentioned were taken because every study ever conducted on the effects of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving has shown that traffic accidents increase when drivers talk or text on the devices. This holds true for both handheld and, to a lesser extent, hands-free devices. Certainly, a cab ride in any city anywhere will prove to anyone that restricting the use of handheld devices will not reduce the number, length or distraction of phone calls for the driver.

No one should interpret the seeming lack of effect of bans on using handheld cell phones on the number of automobile insurance claims as evidence that such bans should be lifted. And to the institute’s credit, HDLI president Adrian Lund said in a press release that “the new findings don’t match what we already know about the risk of phoning and texting while driving. .. We’re currently gathering data to figure out this mismatch.”