Personal Injury

Safety researchers say texting bans may be causing accidents

Although U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been working furiously to make texting behind the wheel illegal in all 50 states, a study conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HDLI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), suggests the anti-texting laws are not yet helping to drive down accident rates.

In fact, according to HDLI, evidence collected in four states (California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington) where texting bans have been adopted reveal that the new laws are actually associated with a slight increase in the number of traffic collisions. Researchers compared their findings to collision-related insurance claims in nearby states where no texting bans exist and found accident rates to be the same or slightly lower.

In short, the study found that a rise in traffic crashes follows bans on texting and driving.

The controversial findings were released last week at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association, raising the question: if the anti-texting laws just didn’t help, why would there be an increase in the number of crashes?

According to Adrian Lund, President of both HDLI and IIHS, the problem could be that texting drivers now face a dual distraction: texting behind the wheel and trying to avoid getting caught.

“Clearly drivers did respond to the bans somehow,” Lund said in a statement. “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.”

The HDLI study drew a sharp response from Ray LaHood, who has championed efforts to end distracted driving, taking particular aim at texting behind the wheel. Research has shown that texting drivers are 20 times more likely to crash than non-texting drivers, and could be more dangerous than driving legally drunk. Texting while driving has caused 16,000 traffic fatalities from 2001 to 2007, researchers estimate, and the activity has increased exponentially in the last three years. LaHood has called texting while driving a national epidemic.

“This report is completely misleading, “ said LaHood. “Distracted driving-related crashes kill nearly 5,500 people in 2009 and injured almost half a million more. Lives are at stake, and all the reputable research we have says that tough laws, good enforcement, and increased public awareness will help put a stop to the deadly epidemic of distracted driving on our roads.”

LaHood said that the HLDI report doesn’t reconcile previous HLDI-IIHS research finding that drivers using handheld devices are more likely to crash. He also said the organization’s latest findings don’t square with the Department of Transportation’s research, which has found steady declines in cities where anti-distracted-driving laws are combined with tougher enforcement.

Until awareness of distracted driving dangers increases, tougher enforcement may be the key to making the laws effective and reversing the current trends.

“The point of texting bans is to reduce crashes, and by this essential measure the laws are ineffective,” Lund said. He also 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 the crash risks.

To read more about the study: