Being distracted by using a cell phone, which includes texting and talking, is on the increase because more people have phones.
Ticketing those who violate bans on texting or talking while driving is often difficult because tracking use is most often subject to honesty by those questioned.
In September Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held the second Distracted Driving Summit in Washington and more attention than ever is now being focused on what he calls a deadly epidemic of distracted driving.
We all know that most people aren’t going to jump out of a vehicle and admit to using a cell phone while driving after a wreck. It’s not always possible to know what caused an accident, so many who track the number of wrecks, injuries, and fatalities know that the number of crashes reported as being caused by cell phone use or texting while driving is lower than the actual amount of crashes caused by these distractions. And then there’s the problem of proving someone was using a cell phone where there are no laws allowing law enforcement to get cell phone records.
Like Jennifer Smith, president of Focus-Driven told me, “they can take bodily fluids from drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but we can’t get subpoenas to detect if drivers were texting or talking on a phone when they caused a crash.”
Enforcement of laws once they are made is the difficult part, and it takes time to educate the public that laws are even in place. On top of that most of the laws only offer a slap on the wrist to drivers who don’t care if they get a ticket. If you paid $500 for a smart phone and used it almost every waking minute of your day would you care if you got a ticket for $25, less than half of what most people pay per month for the use of a phone?
In an odd twist, for reasons unknown to me, results of a recent study were announced in late September that seemed to undermine everything that’s been done to lower the number of people using cell phones while driving. Even with a closer look and an explanation of everything by Russ Rader, spokesman for the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), I’m still not sure why they would mislead the public and legislators with a headline that is only one theory, but one that makes the laws banning texting look so flawed as to cause more harm than good.
Recently released during the annual meeting of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the study by researchers at the HLDI claimed there are “no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers.” HLDI operates under the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all,” Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the IIHS said in the news release slated for distribution during the GHSA meeting. “In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws.”
I believe it’s quite a stretch to say that a ban on texting, which was reported ineffective, is then believed to cause more wrecks.
Russ Rader, spokesman for HLDI, said that they don’t take positions on law; rather they just look at what isn’t working and report it.
However, when information is released to the public with this headline: “Texting bans don’t reduce crashes; effects are slight crash increases,” it seems to me that they are taking a position on the law by insinuating that the laws increase crashes.
To add to that, Rader told me that the comment that texting bans meant they might increase the risks because drivers hold their phones out of sight from law enforcement, increasing their distraction, and that the statement was “speculation” on the part of HLDI.
I wonder how many people in the media picked up that it was just speculation that texting bans cause more wrecks, and how many just ran with the attention-grabbing headline, thereby allowing their readers to run with it and think that it’s safe to text.
An interesting thing about the three-page news release from HLDI is that all of the negativity of banning cell phone use and texting while driving is on the first two pages, but by the time a reader gets to the third page the tone of the release changes for a few paragraphs.
After Lund points out that the “laws are ineffective,” he cautions that “finding no reduction in crashes, or even a small increase, doesn’t mean it’s safe to text and drive, though. There’s a crash risk associated with doing this. It’s just that bans aren’t reducing this crash risk.”
Further reading shows that Lund returns to previous misleading remarks when he says noncompliance is likely the reason texting bans aren’t reducing crashes and that many respondents who knew it was illegal to text said they didn’t think police were strongly enforcing the bans.
“But this doesn’t explain why crashes in-creased after texting bans,” Lund added. “If drivers were disregarding the bans, then the crash patterns should have remained steady. So clearly drivers did respond to the bans somehow, and what they might have been doing was moving their phones down and out of sight when they texted, in recognition that what they were doing was illegal. This could exacerbate the risk of texting by taking drivers’ eyes further from the road and for a long-er time.”
Anything is possible, and because there are so many reasons why the number could have gone up or down it is irresponsible to put out a news release where the title blames the ban for more crashes when texting in general is on the increase, which by the way is at the end of the HLDI news release.
According to HLDI, “wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too; it went up by about 60 percent in one year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009.”
The data used for the study was insurance data, and Lund explained the database used covers 80 percent of crashes. Furthermore, the crashes used in the study were not based upon type of wreck.
“We only know that crashes happened, we don’t know what caused the crash,” Rader added.
FocusDriven’s Smith told me that only 1 percent of all crashes in the U.S. are caused by texting and that small number wouldn’t have much effect either way on an increase or decrease during the study.
Lund added that the texting findings, together with previous HLDI’s finding on hand-held phone bans don’t reduce crashes, “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes.”
But Smith responded that “legislation means nothing without enforcement. It’s going to take time. …The biggest point that needed to be made is that those four states have no enforcement. The use of texting while driving is not going to stop when there’s not enough enforcement or using minimal penalties.”
The four states referred to in the study were California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington.
Another disheartening setback for proponents of a total ban on cell phone use while driving occurred when the GHSA decided during their annual meeting not to back a proposal from California that would have essentially supported a complete ban on cell phone use by drivers.
According to The Washington Post, GHSA decided not to back the legislation because it would be unenforceable.
Seems to me that is what people used to say about seat belt laws and now a majority of passengers and drivers wear seat belts and lives are saved because of it.
In USA Today it was reported that “the National Highway Safety Administration has made distracted driving a top priority. Distracted driving-related crashes claimed 5,474 lives and led to 448,000 traffic injuries across the U.S. in 2009, according to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
“Despite the morbid statistic, Transportation Secretary LaHood hasn’t backed a total ban on cell phone use by drivers, either.”
That was a surprising bit of information in USA Today considering that LaHood is as vocal about distracted driving as he is about anything and had just wrapped up the second Distracted Driving Summit the week before. So I contacted his office and was told by La-Hood’s spokesperson, Olivia Alair, that “Only Congress has the authority to pass a national anti-distracted driving law, and we are working with Congress to promote such legislation.”
In a news release following the misleading report on texting bans, LaHood said, “Tough laws are the first step and enforcement must be next. 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.”
Rader’s solution is to use technology to fix the problem that technology has created.
“If laws aren’t working we may need a broader solution: technology to block cell phone use while in motion. …[or] crash avoidance technology that is being built into cars and trucks avoids all kinds of distractions, not just while drivers are on the phone.”
I don’t have a problem with that solution, but in the meantime, let’s continue to pass laws and educate the public.
Barb Kampbell of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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