Study: Handheld phone enforcement doesn't cut crashes

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — High enforcement of bans on hand-held driver phone use bans led to a drop in violations, but no decline in insurance claims for crashes, a study released Friday said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at claims after two high-profile federally funded enforcement efforts by local and state police in the Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York between April 2010 and April 2011.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration project was aimed at cracking down on hand-held phone use and texting — both illegal under state laws.

After this high-intensity enforcement, the number of drivers observed holding a hand-held cellphone to their ear fell 57 percent in Hartford and 15 percent in the comparison communities of Bridgeport and Stamford, Connecticut. In Syracuse, the number of drivers observed engaged in hand-held phone conversations declined 32 percent. At the same time, the practice also decreased in the comparison community of Albany, New York, by 40 percent.

Observed rates of texting or otherwise manipulating handheld phones also decreased sharply in both Hartford and Syracuse, while the comparison communities experienced only slight declines.

To determine whether crash rates shrank as a result of the enforcement campaigns, IIHS compared collision claims between counties with high enforcement and nearby counties. IIHS "didn't find a corresponding reduction in crashes reported to insurers from the program counties relative to the comparison counties, even though the rates of cellphone use and texting decreased in both program cities."

"To effectively tackle the problem of distracted driving, we need a broader approach that takes into account the many and varied sources of driver distraction," says Adrian Lund, president of IIHS. "Singling out cellphones may lead drivers to disregard the fact that other behaviors that divert their attention from the road are risky, too. Fortunately, there is both new and old technology to help us address the problem."

It's the latest research to suggest that handheld cell phones alone are not resulting in a decline in distracted driving crashes. Previously studies have shown no link between states that banned handheld cell phone use and the number of traffic crashes.

The Governors Highway Safety Association says the research shows the need for a comprehensive approach to addressing inattentive driving and shows motorists are often distracted by more than just their phones. GHSA wants the federal government to make it easier for states to receive grants for banning texting behind the wheel.

"Unfortunately, even though nearly every state has banned texting while driving, only Connecticut qualified for distracted driving incentive funds" for 2014 and 2015, said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. "That's why GHSA is urging the federal government to revise the distracted driving incentive program so that states enforcing strong laws qualify for this critical funding."

Separate research by IIHS and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute suggests that drivers who weren't using their phones may have been distracted by something else. The other possible explanation is that drivers may have switched to hands-free calling, which is legal in both states. "These drivers still may be distracted by their conversations even though their hands are on the wheel. It is difficult to estimate the prevalence of hands-free phone use," IIHS said.

The National Transportation Safety Board wants nearly all hands-free calling banned and some research has suggested the cognitive distractions of hands-free calls pose a serious safety risk. But no state has moved to restrict hands-free calling — except for restrictions on teen drivers in some states.

Drivers in the IIHS-VTTI studies compensated for the distraction of using a cellphone by reducing travel speeds at the beginning of a call, IIHS said. Speeds within six seconds of initiating or receiving a call on average were 5-6 mph slower than at other times, research shows.

NHTSA estimates that 3,328 people were killed and an estimated 421,000 were injured in distraction-related crashes in 2012.

Currently, 44 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for drivers of all ages — including Michigan. Separately, 14 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit drivers of all ages from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Michigan is not one of them.

Michigan and 37 other states do ban cell phone use by novice drivers. A law on Michigan's books since 2010 prohibits drivers from reading, typing or sending text messages while driving. Yet 16.3 percent of drivers who were surveyed admitted to texting and emailing while driving — twice the percentage of 2012.