Bans on handheld cell phone use by drivers aren’t cutting into accident rates, according to a study by insurance industry researchers.
“This finding doesn’t auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving,” the leader of the Highway Loss Data Institute said.
Collision claims in Calfornia, Connecticut and the District of Columbia remained about the same after they adopted bans on the use of handheld cell phones (meaning those without hands-free functionality), the group said.
New York did show a decrease, but researchers dismissed that reduction in collision insurance claims as part of a pre-existing trend.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration immediately trashed the cell phone law study, saying: “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.”
California state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, called the release of the study’s findings “largely a nonevent” due to the limits of its data. Simitian authored California’s ban on handheld cell phones and then its ban on text messaging.
The study only reported on vehicles up to 3 years old and did not include accidents in which no claims were made. (Read the cell phone study results.)
“Month-to-month fluctuations in rates of collision claims in jurisdictions with bans didn’t change from before to after the laws were enacted,” HLDI said in a statement. “Nor did the patterns change in comparison with trends in jurisdictions that didn’t have such laws.
The group said the finding was “a mismatch” with what is known about the dangers of cell phones and driving.
“If crash risk increases with phone use and fewer drivers use phones where it’s illegal to do so, we would expect to see a decrease in crashes,” said Adrian Lund, president of HLDI. “But we aren’t seeing it.”
DOT chief Ray LaHood wrote on his blog: “Not explaining likely reasons for the surprising data encourages people to wrongly conclude that talking on cell phones while driving is not dangerous!”
The researchers did speculate that the number of accident claims remained steady because drivers began using hands-free technology, which it believes makes no improvement in safety.
The National Safety Council, which has called for a total ban on cell phone use by drivers, issued a statement praising the insurance group’s work:
“There is a common misconception that hands-free is safer and research tells us hands-free is just as dangerous as handheld,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.”
The Highway Loss Data Institute, a “nonprofit research organization,” has been crunching numbers from auto insurance companies since 1973. It is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which Lund also heads.
A previous Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of driver phone records found a four-fold increase in the risk of injury crashes.
In a bit of irony, the DOT’s distracted driving web site features a rolling scroll of related news headlines, which today all started with some variation on: “Distracted Driving Laws Don’t Reduce Crashes.”