It’s illegal to text while driving in most U.S. states yet a new study finds such bans do not reduce car accidents and may actually increase insurance claims.
Researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found no reductions in crashes after laws that ban texting by all drivers take effect. In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes.
The findings are based on comparisons of claims in four states before and after texting bans, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states.
The new texting ban findings are consistent with those of a previous HLDI study, which found that banning hand-held phone use while driving does not cut crashes. HLDI is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
HLDI researchers calculated rates of collision claims for vehicles up to nine years old during the months immediately before and after driver texting was banned in California (January 2009), Louisiana (July 2008), Minnesota (August 2008), and Washington (January 2008). Comparable data were collected in nearby states where texting laws weren’t substantially changed during the time span of the study. This controlled for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans — changes in the number of miles driven due to the economy, seasonal changes in driving patterns, etc.
Young motorists are more likely than older people to text while driving. In all four of HDLI’s study states, crashes increased among drivers younger than 25 after the all-driver bans took effect. In California, Louisiana, and Washington, the increases for young drivers were greater than for drivers 25 and older. The largest crash increase of all (12 percent) following enactment of a texting ban was among young drivers in California.
An IIIHS study that relied on driver phone records found a four-fold increase in the risk of injury crashes associated with phoning. A study in Canada found a four-fold increase in the risk of crashes involving property damage. The crash risk associated with texting hasn’t been quantified as precisely, but it may be comparable, if not greater, than the risk associated with phoning.
“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. 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,” said Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the IIHS.
However, the National Safety Council said the report does not provide 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 NSC said.
IIHS and the NSC have both reported that the combination of risk and exposure of cell phone use contributes to about 25 percent of crashes. No other form of distraction contributes to that many crashes. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports driver distractions lead to nearly 4,500 deaths in 2009, while acknowledging the incomplete nature of police reporting could make the actual number of fatalities even greater than reported.
HLDI’s new findings about texting, together with the organization’s previous finding that hand-held phone bans didn’t reduce crashes, “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes,” Lund said. “They’re focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it. This ignores the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem.”
Month-to-month fluctuations in the rates of collision claims in HLDI’s four study states with texting bans for all drivers didn’t change much from before to after the bans were enacted. Nor did the patterns differ much from those in nearby states that didn’t ban texting for all drivers during the study period. To the extent that the crash patterns did change in the study states, they went up, not down, after the bans took effect. Increases varied from 1 percent more crashes in Washington to about 9 percent more in Minnesota (the result in Washington isn’t statistically significant).
“The point of texting bans is to reduce crashes, and by this essential measure the laws are ineffective,” HLDI’s Lund said. He cautioned 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.”
NSC emphasized the HLDI study has limitations, and was performed in states at a time when consistent, uniform and effective enforcement was not in place.
“The validity of comparisons made between states relies on the assumption that texting bans are the only difference between the states,” NSC said. “Although texting bans included in the study did not decrease crash frequency, we do not know the reasons for this. IIHS and HLDI seem to suggest that texting laws might even be responsible for an increase in crashes in some states. That suggestion is speculative because there is no evidence that texting laws caused the increases.”
Furthermore, NSC said recent enforcement projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., had measurable impact in reducing texting behind the wheel. “We are hopeful the increased attention to the issue will move more state and local law enforcement agencies to develop best practices to enforce these laws,” the Council said.
Lund admitted that noncompliance is a likely reason texting bans aren’t reducing crashes. Survey results indicate that many drivers, especially younger ones, shrug off these bans. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the group most likely to text, 45 percent reported doing so anyway in states that bar all drivers from texting. This is just shy of the 48 percent of drivers who reported texting in states without bans. 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 increased after texting bans,” Lund pointed out. “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 longer time.”
Using a driving simulator, researchers at the University of Glasgow found a sharp decrease in crash likelihood when participants switched from head-down to head-up displays. This suggests that it might be more hazardous for a driver to text from a device that’s hidden from view on the lap or vehicle seat.
Texting in general is on the increase. 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 1 year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009.
The District of Columbia was the first U.S. jurisdiction to ban all motorists from texting. This was in 2004, and since then 30 states have followed suit. Nearly half of these bans have been enacted in 2010.
To download the full HLDI report, visit www.iihs.org/news/2010/hldi_news_092810.pdf.