Are Laws Prohibiting Cell Phone Use While Driving Effective?

Recent reports provide conflicting evidence as to whether banning drivers’ use of cell phones is a proper way to fight the increase in distracted driving accidents.

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Drive Smart Virginia initiative have been widely used in recent years to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.

Many reports have stated that using a cell phone to talk or text while behind the wheel is the most hazardous form of distracted driving and that it has led to a high number of crashes on our nation’s roads.

But now comes a report from the journal, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, whichfinds that cell phone bans may not be effective.

Study: Distracted Driving Law Had Little Impact in California

As Science Direct reports, researchers analyzed accidents in California in the six months before and after that state’s driver cell phone ban was adopted in 2008. They found little impact on traffic safety.

Researchers found the number of car accidents in California only dropped from 66.7 per day to 65.2 per day statewide, “a statistically minor decline,” according to Autoblog.

“It was pretty clear to us that there was no compelling evidence of a decrease in accidents,” Daniel Kaffine, one of the study’s authors, told Autoblog.

Autoblog also cites a study of insurance claims in 2009 and 2010 by the Highway Loss Data Institute, the research arm of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which found no link between cell phone bans and a decrease in crashes.

Key Question: What Type of Distracted Driving Ban?

But at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, researchers who examined texting-while-driving bans have found that the impact of such laws depends on how the law is written and enforced.

“Our results indicated that primary texting bans were significantly associated with a 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities among all age groups, which equates to an average of 19 deaths prevented per year in states with such bans,” study author Alva O. Ferdinand, Dr.P.H., J.D., said in a news release.

“Primarily enforced texting laws that banned only young drivers from texting were the most effective at reducing deaths among the 15-to-21-year-old cohort, with an associated 11 percent reduction in traffic fatalities among this age group in states with such bans.”

A primary law is one in which a driver can be cited for the specific violation such as using a cell phone behind the wheel or texting while driving. Under a secondary law, a law enforcement officer must have another reason to stop the driver such as speeding before a distracted driving citation can be issued.

What is the Distracted Driving Law in Virginia?

Virginia’s ban on texting for all drivers is a primary law. However, the state’s ban on all cell phone use for novice drivers (hand-held and hands-free) is a secondary law. The ban on all cell phone use by bus drivers is a primary law.

The NHTSA reports that 44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers. Twelve states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving.

Study findings may continue to conflict as these fairly new laws are studied. But it seems that any measure that refocuses a driver’s attention on the road surely contributes to overall highway safety.