texting while driving

How Effective Are New Distracted Driving Laws?

As more states implement cell phone laws, drivers, lawmakers, law enforcers, and researchers have all started to ask how effective the new laws are in reducing distracted driving and distraction-related crashes.

California’s Cell Phone and Texting Bans

A study released earlier this month by the AAA Automobile Club of Southern California provides some answers. It examined the long term effects of California’s hand-held phone and texting bans based on data collected over the nearly five years the bans have been in effect. So far, it’s the only study of its kind in any state.

Hand-Held Phone Use Reduced By 57%

Prior to California’s ban on hand-held cell phone use in July 2008, an estimated 9.3% of California drivers were using hand-held cell phones at any given time. Immediately after the ban took effect in July 2008, the rate dropped to 3.3%, and has since ranged between 3.1% and 4%, less than half of the level before the ban.

… But Texting More Than Doubled

Before California’s texting ban took effect in January 2009, about 1.5% of drivers were estimated to be texting at any time. The rate dropped to .03% after the ban, but quickly began to climb. Today’s rate of 3.4% is more than double the level of texting before the ban.

Researchers pointed to the rapid growth of texting over the past five years as a contributor to the increase in texting while driving. In addition, drivers who text can conceal their behavior more easily, holding phones below their windows and out of sight. This makes the texting ban harder to enforce. Of the 790,000 citations issued by the California Highway Patrol for all cell phone use while driving, only 30,000 have been for texting.

If Hand-Held Phone Use is Down, Why Aren't Crash Rates Declining?

With such substantial reductions in hand-held phone use in California and in other states that passed cell phone bans like Connecticut and New York, researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety expected to see significant reductions in crashes. Instead, they found virtually no difference in crash rates before and after the laws took effect.

Hand-held bans deter some drivers from using cell phones entirely, but other drivers are switching to hands-free systems. While no state has a blanket ban on hands-free phones, there is no difference in crash risk between hand-held and hands-free devices. Since 37% of drivers in states with hand-held bans report using hands-free phones for some or all of their calls while driving, this could limit the effect of hand-held bans on crash rates. Increases in texting while driving may also be keeping crash rates higher.

Future Steps

To reduce crash rates, the AAA study recommends banning hands-free phone use, including voice-controlled texting, which “creates the illusion of driver safety” despite serious danger. A California state assembly bill for this purpose was introduced this year, and will be considered in 2014. The study also recommends stronger penalties for violations of current laws, including assessing points to violators’ driving records, a step that has been shown to increase driver compliance with other traffic laws.

States continue to pass cell phone use bans, with several going into effect later this year:

  • September 1, 2013 - Texas - Primary offense hand-held phone and texting ban in school zones begins
  • October 1, 2013 - Florida - Secondary offense texting ban begins
  • October 1, 2013 - Maryland - Primary offense texting ban begins
  • January 1, 2014 - Vermont - Primary offense hand-held ban in work zones begins
  • January 1, 2014 - Illinois - Primary offense hand-held ban begins

Meanwhile, Mississippi lawmakers are launching a renewed effort to ban hand-held phone use and texting while driving, and the Iowa Department of Transportation plans to develop a new text-blocking application for teen drivers’ smartphones.

Looking for More Information?

From One Second to the Next,” a sobering new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog, makes the real cost of distracted driving painfully clear. The film was produced in partnership with AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign, and focuses on people who have caused accidents while texting and driving, as well as victims of the crashes.

Check out our other posts on cell phones and other driving distractions for more information on the risks of distracted driving and tips to stay focused!

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