Cell Phone Bans Don't Decrease Accidents, Study Says

A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute looked at accident rates before and after cell phone bans took effect in New York, the District of Columbia, Connecticut and California and found that month-to-month fluctuations in collision claims didn't change. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls the study "irresponsible."

Policymakers who have become increasingly concerned about drivers using cell phones now have a new worry: According to a study of four jurisdictions that have banned the use of hand-held devices while driving, the laws have not reduced accident rates.

The study, conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry group, looked at accident rates before and after cell phone bans took effect in New York, the District of Columbia, Connecticut and California.

It found that month-to-month fluctuations in collision accident claims didn't change before and after cell phone bans took effect. Nor did accident patterns change compared with those in nearby states without cell phone bans.

"The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," said Adrian Lund, president of the HLDI.

The Findings Are A Mystery

HLDI says the reduction in observed cell phone use is substantial when laws banning hand-held cell phone use take effect. And the link between the effects of phone use on the risk of a crash has been well established. So it's a bit of a mystery as to why there has not been a corresponding drop in the four jurisdictions' accident rates since their cell phone bans took effect.

Lund says the HLDI is gathering data to figure out the mismatch. It could be that drivers may be switching to hands-free phones in these jurisdictions. The institute says the risk of crashing while using a hands-free phone and holding a phone are about the same. Currently no state bans the use of hands-free devices.

"Whatever the reason," Lund says, "the key finding is that crashes aren't going down where hand-held phone use has been banned."

He says the finding "doesn't augur well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving."

NTSB: The Study Is 'Irresponsible'

On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced an immediate ban on the use of texting devices by commercial truck and bus drivers. There are indications that the department is considering a ban on all cell phone use by commercial drivers.

Lund points out that drivers are subject to other distractions, including audio devices, eating and dealing with fighting children in the back seat. He says technology that could alert drivers about "all of the mistakes we make when we're distracted by anything is ultimately the way to deal with this problem."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reacted strongly to the HLDI study.

"It is irresponsible to suggest that laws banning cell phone use while driving have zero effect on the number of crashes on our nation's roadways," the agency said in a statement. "A University of Utah study shows that using a cell phone while driving can be just as dangerous and deadly as driving drunk. We know that by enacting and enforcing tough laws, states have reduced the number of crashes leading to injuries and fatalities. We know that high-visibility campaigns and enforcement, like Click It or Ticket and Drunk Driving. Over The Limit. Under Arrest has had a positive influence on driver behavior.

"That's why seat belt use is at an all-time high of 84 percent and drunk driving is declining. These improvements didn't happen overnight. It took strong laws, enforcement, education and personal responsibility to bring us where we are today, and still there is more work to do. When it comes to distracted driving, we are only at the starting gate." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.