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Texting ban report met with anger, skepticism

Image: Ray LaHood
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, seen speaking in Washington earlier this month, said a report released Tuesday suggesting texting-while-driving laws don't work are misleading and flawed.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: contributor

Are texting bans working?

Road deaths due to texting behind the wheel, a topic widely reported on in recent months, has taken a new twist.

In a report released Tuesday, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that texting bans are not reducing crashes.

The claims that the anti-texting laws do not reduce crashes touched a nerve with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who responded harshly to the report, calling it misleading and flawed.

“Last Thursday, I blogged about misleading claims from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) disparaging the effectiveness of good laws and good enforcement in our campaign to end distracted driving,” LaHood wrote in his blog “The FastLane,” this morning. “Unfortunately, they're at it again today with another misleading ‘study,’ ” LaHood continued. “There are numerous flaws with this ‘study,’ but the most obvious is that they have created a cause and effect that simply doesn't exist.”

The results of the HLDI study, released at the Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting in Kansas City, found that as a result of texting bans, not only was there not a reduction in crashes, there was a slight increase in crash frequency, especially for young drivers, who are most likely to text and drive. The new study adds to findings released earlier this year by the institute that found that banning hand-held cell phones while driving did not reduce the frequency of crashes.

The findings of the new report are based on comparisons of insurance claims in four states before and after texting was banned, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states without laws banning texting.

“The results were contrary to what we had hoped,” said Kim Hazelbaker, HLDI’s senior vice president. “Unfortunately, we are not seeing a decrease in collisions. We can find no evidence that these laws keep us safe.”

“I think there is some reason to believe there is a negative effect,” Hazelbaker said. For example, texting surreptitiously by moving the cell phone to the lap, may cause the user to move his or her eyes even further from the road and can “actually be more dangerous.”

“We’d like to see more focus by the government on things that work,” he said, such as technologies like lane departure and blind spot warning systems, and autonomous braking, rather than “continuing to pass laws that don’t make a difference.”

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have anti-texting laws, he said.

“You can't say laws don't work,” said David Strickland, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator. “It’s too early to make an assessment.” He said strong enforcement and public awareness was needed, but these take time to take hold. When there are high visibility, education, and good laws, “it works,” he said, referring to the success of new Department of Transportation campaigns.

In April of this year, DOT launched pilot enforcement campaigns in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., to test whether increased law enforcement efforts combined with public service announcements could get distracted drivers to put down their cell phones behind the wheel. The campaign, called “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other,” found that police enforcement can drastically reduce distracted driving behavior.

“Tough laws are the first step and enforcement must be next,” said DOT's LaHood in a statement released Tuesday. “We know that anti-distracted driving laws can be enforced effectively because two DOT pilot enforcement programs in Hartford and Syracuse prove it. In the last six months alone, hand-held cell phone use has dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse, and texting while driving has declined 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse.”

In an e-mail message, Hazelbaker of the HLDI, wrote: “We look forward to analyzing the insurance claims data for those two cities and certainly hope to find less claims as a result of these enforcement initiatives.”

When asked about the efficacy of the HLDI study, Hazelbaker said he was confident of the results. “These are big, big studies,” he said. “If there was an effect, we’d see it.”

Response from the road safety community was mixed.

“We’re a little baffled,” said David Teater, senior director for transportation initiatives for the National Safety Council (NSC). “It seems to us too soon to tell.” He said premature studies can slow down the implementation of effective laws, which can potentially be harmful.

In a statement released today, the NSC said that it disagrees with any suggestion that the narrow findings of the report are definitive evidence that all cell phone or texting bans do not and will not ever work.

“Texting laws that are not effectively enforced could not be expected to have much safety benefit,” the release said. The statement went on to say that the study released today was performed in states at a time when consistent, uniform and effective enforcement was not in place. The recent DOT enforcement projects in Syracuse and Hartford, by contrast, “had measurable impact in reducing texting behind the wheel.”

The NSC has called for a total ban on all cell phone use while driving, basing the decision on evidence from more than 50 studies that showed the significant risk of cell phone use and texting while driving. The combination of strong laws and visible enforcement, “can reduce distracted driving just as it has been effective in increasing safety belt use and reducing drunk driving,” the statement said.

Texting while behind the wheel is “a new, emerging and serious threat. If we don’t get out ahead with responsible laws,” Teater said, “we may have an epidemic on our hands.”

“I don’t think it’s a big surprise to most people in the road safety community,” said Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and educational organization. He said he didn’t believe that the IIHS was implying that banning cell phones and texting was a bad idea, but that more public awareness and enforcement was necessary for better results.

“Mostly we know that a law itself isn’t enough. We know that changing driver behavior is very, very difficult. The risks are real, and the message to the public, Kissinger said, is “talking on a cell phone or texting while driving is very risky, and we don’t need to do it. Period.”