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Is cell phone legislation effective?

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Jay Shelly, Director, Center for Transportation Safety (a division of PHH Arval) writes about the latest studies concerning cell phone usage and texting while driving. While the data seems counter-intuitive, Mr. Shelly highlights some points that might help to make sense of it all.

A recently published study conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute concludes that the government’s push toward legislating against cell phone use and text messaging while driving is not having an impact on the number of crash incidents recorded. 

Interestingly, this is where a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) funded study offers some insight.

The study collected data from over 13,000 trucks and buses and included a total of 1,085 crashes, 8,375 near crashes, 30,661 crash-relevant conflicts and 211,711 baselines (which is determined as “normative” driving used in comparison with the safety events). The major findings were:

•     Any cell phone activity that involves using one’s hands while driving (including texting, emailing, dialing or accessing the internet) significantly increased the odds of involvement in a crash/near crash.

•     Talking/listening on a hands-free or hand-held cell phone while driving did not significantly affect the odds of involvement in a crash or near crash.

•     The existence of a state cell phone law did not significantly impact drivers’ likelihood of using their cell phones while driving, compared to usage in a state that did not have a law prohibiting cell phone use. Consistent law enforcement is an important element in ensuring the laws are obeyed.

•     A driver’s odds of using a cell phone while driving were 17% less likely under a fleet cell phone policy compared to a fleet that doesn’t have a stance on cell phone use while driving.

The decline in texting/cell phone use due to company policy as opposed to state law is the important piece here, because “non-compliance” proved to be the likeliest reason why texting bans aren’t reducing crashes. For some reason, more people seem to adhere to formal company policies (albeit at a low rate) than follow actual laws in the case of texting while driving.

But what could explain the increase in crashes after legislation is enacted?

One theory comes from Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "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."

This stuff is important, especially in terms of highway safety, for texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47% from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too – rising about 60% in one year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009.

This is a concern because distracted driving causes crashes – a lot of them. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with distraction-related fatalities representing 16% of overall traffic fatalities in 2009.

The question is this: If state laws can’t change driver behavior when it comes to texting/call phone use while operating a motor vehicle, what will?

Chime in! Let us know how you’re combating distracted driving in your fleet, by leaving a comment in the space below.