Last week, the Highway Loss Data Institute released a report that examined whether collision claims had gone up, down, or stayed the same in states that have banned cellphone use while driving. Their findings should have surprised no one, but seemed to have surprised everyone — crash rates did not go down after a hand-held cellphone ban took effect.
Why should this have been of little surprise?
1. A law doesn’t automatically change human behavior.
Laws can be wonderful things, but they are only as effective as when people obey them. This is often done with a stick — enforcement — rather than a carrot (such as incentives for safe driving practices). The laws have, according to the New York Times reporting on this study, reduced the use of hand-held cellphones 41 to 76 percent. But these are not ongoing studies — they are a single data point in time. Cell phone use may go back up after a ban if people believe the law isn’t being reliably or widely enforced.
We only need look at the lack of effectiveness of prohibition in the 1920s — or on the highways, the federal 55 MPH speed limit of the 1980s, or the mandatory use of safety belts — to see that laws don’t always or automatically change human behavior. It takes time, and some laws simply never catch on with the majority of citizens.
2. Insurance claims don’t account for all accidents.
There is a mistaken assumption that everyone files a claim for any kind of automobile accident. But this is simply not the case. For minor fender benders and similar kinds of smaller accidents, neither party may file with their insurance company because their deductible is higher than the cost of repairs, or they may not want the black mark in their insurance file resulting in higher rates next year. We don’t know how this may have affected the numbers, as the researchers only looked at insurance claims, not police reports or other methods of obtaining additional accident data.
3. Research has always pointed to distracted driving, not cellphone use alone, as the problem.
The problem with hand-held cellphone bans is that they always identified a single type of distracted driving, leaving a dozen other distractions happily legal. But the research in this area shows that it is all of these activities — not just hand-held cellphone use — that contribute to higher reaction times, and therefore increases the chances of someone getting into an accident.
So while banning a single type of distraction may seem to make sense on the face of it, it doesn’t address the remaining distractions that take people’s eyes away from the road — adjusting the radio or climate controls, reaching down to retrieve something that fell over or out of reach, primping or checking oneself out in the mirror, reading, or any of a number of dangerous activities. Heck, even just talking to someone else while in the same car has been shown to be a potentially dangerous distraction (and it hinders communication with the person you’re trying to talk to anyway).
4. As cars get safer, people take more risks.
What if, as Tom Vanderbilt suggests in his excellent book Traffic, as cars get safer, people take greater risks? It may be that as cars now have so many safety-related standard features — safety belts, airbags, center-mounted rear brake lights, safety cages, and anti-lock braking systems — people begin to take for granted that they can drive in whatever manner they’d like, and still walk away from an accident. Increased feelings of safety can push us, unconsciously, to take more risks. Why else would a study of SUV drivers show that their drivers tend to, on average, drive faster than car drivers? Because an SUV driver feels more safe.
But it may also be that riskier drivers always will take greater risks and therefore remain just as likely to get into an accident. Vanderbilt quotes Leonard Evans as suggesting “that the most severe crashes happen to those not wearing their seatbelts.” In other words, laws like a cellphone ban aren’t likely to impact the people who are the ones that will account for most of the accidents to begin with.
Laws that ban hand-held cellphone use are well-meaning. But like a lot of well-meaning actions, the results are not always what we might expect. The introduction of anti-lock braking systems, for instance, was believed to help increase driver control of their car in an emergency situation and also result in fewer accidents. However, data since ABS systems have been introduced have shown that the systems have had a negligible impact on crash numbers. We simply aren’t very good at predicting the effects of such actions — like laws or new technology — meant to help.
I was disappointed to read some of the misinformation about this report that was passed along as “fact” by otherwise-respected news outlets. For instance, Brennon Slattery claimed the current study “only looked at 100 cars — hardly enough to gather substantial data leading beyond a flimsy hypothesis. And, for you conspiracy theory types, it’s worth reiterating that this study was funded by insurance companies, suits that profit off this kind of stuff.”
Apparently PC World doesn’t bother having its bloggers check their facts (because blogging about the story first is apparently what’s most important). The study did not look at only 100 cars. And who funded the study has little impact on the actual data they are reporting. Especially if you don’t connect the dots as to how showing such bans don’t reduce crashes somehow helps the insurance industry (e.g. – insurance companies want people to crash more often?). Maybe PC World should stick to reporting on… PCs?
Then The Christian Science Monitor’s Andrew Heining repeated the same misinformation in his blog entry about the report. How’s that for citizen journalism?
Read the HLDI report here: Hand-Held Cellphone Laws and Collision Claim Frequencies (PDF)
You are right that bloggers should check their facts to make sure that they are correct, however it is not true that a projects funding has nothing to do with the results they gather. Think about it, if an insurance company is funding your JOB, then you will want to come up with results that they like so that they will continue to fund you so that you can make a living. So often times data gets exaggerated or omitted in order to give the funders a more favorable position.
A project’s funding has nothing to do with the results if you can’t show how the funding impacted the results.
How does showing a law that would ideally help decrease the number of crashes, but hasn’t, help the insurance industry? Insurers pay out for crashes, so they actually would like things that reduce the number of crashes (one would think).
I have no problem with a blogger pointing out the source of funding for a study. But they also have to clearly demonstrate how that funding might impact the results and, how, in this specific report, that may have been done. Otherwise it’s just sloppy “guilt by association” reasoning (I wouldn’t even call it logic).
it is an unfortunate fact that cell phone bans have little effect.
in order to make these effective, evidentiary rules must be instituted which would allow police to effectively enforce them with successful prosecutions.
police enforce laws like speeding because the ticket sticks. no one on the phone on the highway ever gets a ticket for tailgaiting unless the accident actually happens. it is the same principle.
video enforcement is a possibility but many money hungry townships will use this unscrupulously because these municipalities are no more honest than the drivers whom they police.
i have always thought the solution to traffic safety is technology to moderate how we use technology. if it were mandated that all new car radios have bluetooth and all new mobile phones have bluetooth then the level of driver distraction can be titrated because cellphone use would not require our hands or our eyes.
Ah, but the surprising thing is that cell phone use empirically DROPPED in the states that had the new laws, by a statistically significant percentage. Yet the number of accidents didn’t drop.
The reason this is so surprising is that as early as seven months ago, the NYT was running articles touting studies that showed cell phones were a statistically significant independent variable in car crashes, and that users of cell phones on the road were at much higher risk of accident while using their phones.
The data doesn’t jibe. Hence, the story.
the nytimes was also a source for my post with specific regard to why police do not enforce no texting while driving laws.
i applied the data in that story to my argument about the enforcement of codes.
thank you for explaining the sitch to me, tpg.
a might also add that while mobile phone usage may have dropped after a ban, it does not mean the ban was enforced. therefore usage was abandoned voluntarily by many responsible drivers but not by the at risk group of compulsive individuals who cause accidents.
this is the connection between my remarks and the larger discussion. in some respects this is similar to a discussion about smoking or unprotected sexuality etc. as these endanger persons beyond those who engage in it and cannot monitor themselves.
I appreciate your well-informed and well thought-out take on the issue, especially this issues of moral hazard. Laws do not change behavior and these laws are tough to enforce. There are, however, technological responses to this: phone applications that turn off cell phones when the user is driving. These at least make it possible for parents and employers to have some enforcement over teenagers and employees. I thought I would let you and your readers know about a few options out there on the web: PhonEnforcer (free), ZoomSafer, or txtBlocker.
The darn thing is, Chris, that the new laws against cell phone use in cars DID seem to empirically change behavior. The researchers counted cars at freeway on-ramps where drivers were talking on their phone at two times: before the law was enacted, and some time after. There was a serious and statistically significant drop in cell phone use after the laws went into place.
However…the crash rates didn’t drop.
That’s the puzzle.
Most drivers are now texting instead of talking on the cellphone – which is 10 times more distracting:)