DRV NOW, TXT L8R
Many States Ban Cell Phone Use for Drivers, But Are the Roads Safer?
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
Imagine a person is driving down a highway at 55 miles per hour. Then she drives the length of a football field without looking at the road.
That happens every day when drivers send or read a text message behind the wheel.
A U.S. Department of Transportation study found texting drivers were 23 times more likely to be involved in a near-crash or crash than those drivers who aren’t texting.
As texting becomes more ubiquitous, especially among young drivers, states have responded by passing bans. Thirty-five states ban texting for all drivers, and seven more ban texting only for beginning drivers.
Although states may be banning texting, two questions come to mind. Do these bans work and can they be enforced?
The answers aren’t so clear-cut.
Enforcing the Bans
Washington was the first state to pass a texting ban, which was coupled with a ban on hand-held cell phones. The legislation passed in 2007 and took effect in 2008. Although it originally was a secondary offense, texting while driving became a primary offense in 2010.
Although the state had no hard data on how big a problem texting was, almost everyone could say they had been hit or were nearly hit by someone driving while distracted, Washington Rep. Judy Clibborn, chair of the Transportation Committee, said.
“We have the largest ferry fleet in the nation,” Clibborn said. “People were talking on cell phones and loading onto the ferries. … The workers from the ferries came and said, ‘We can’t get people to pay attention to what we’re trying to tell them.’”
The Washington State Patrol quickly found out, Clibborn said, that enforcement of the state’s tough new law would be a big challenge.
“You can stop someone, but they don’t have to give you their phone,” Clibborn said, noting that police need a warrant to examine a driver’s phone. “You have to see them (texting). You might see erratic behavior. You might see the phone in the seat of the car, but you don’t know if that phone was connected to that erratic behavior.”
Capt. Jason Berry, head of government and media relations for the Washington State Patrol, said as people become more aware of the texting ban, they’re holding their cell phones down lower in the car to avoid detection, which keeps their eyes off the road even longer.
“I definitely feel that while it’s inherently dangerous to text (and drive) period, I think it’s even more so if your eyes drift downward,” Berry said. “… You’re losing all view of what’s in front of you.”
Berry said making the texting ban a primary offense has made it easier to enforce. In 2009, the State Patrol ticketed 654 people for texting while driving. In 2010, when the law went to primary enforcement, that number jumped to 1,010. From January to November of 2011, more than 1,400 drivers were cited.
Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said texting bans can be enforced. Beginning in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a pilot project in Connecticut and New York to see if high-visibility enforcement programs would prevent drivers from using hand-held cell phones and texting.
After the enforcement in Hartford, observers saw a 57 percent drop in the number of drivers seen using a hand-held cell phones. The percentage of drivers seen manipulating phones, either texting or dialing, also dropped from 3.9 percent to 1.1 percent.
Nursick said Connecticut State Police and local Hartford police departments would place plain-clothes officers in high-traffic areas to look for people they saw using a cell phone. The officer would radio ahead to a uniformed officer, who pulls the driver over and issues a ticket.
“It’s definitely enforceable,” Nursick said. “Lord knows you can’t be there every day, all the time, but it’s a pattern of doing it and getting the message across that this (texting) is not going to be tolerated. … I think it’s more enforceable than people actually suspect.”
Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said so far, there has been no evidence to show that restrictions on cell phones in cars actually make driving safer.
The institute has conducted two studies: One looked at the effect of a hand-held cell phone ban and the other looked at texting laws in four states.
“We saw no effect on crashes in states that had hand-held bans relative to those that didn’t,” Rader said. As for the texting bans, “in three of those four states, we actually saw slight increases in crashes relative to states that didn’t have laws.”
Despite the lack of an immediate impact of texting and cell phone bans, Clibborn said such laws lay the foundation of what is acceptable for the next generation of drivers.
“I think people need to start thinking about what they’re doing in the car,” she said. “This is the way of getting to the next generation. This (texting) is their whole way of life. … It seems to me you don’t go into it with a huge punitive attitude. You come into it saying, ‘It makes sense. This is a sensible thing to not drive distracted.’”
Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said states must figure out how to reliably and consistently enforce texting bans, which can be difficult in this era of budget cuts.
“Pass a tough law, go out and enforce it, educate the public about the enforcement,” she said. “Passing a bill without enforcement is not going to have much effect.”
Rader reminded legislators this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that states have struggled with making driving safer.
“Cell phones have become the symbol of distracted driving, but they are not the only thing that causes distractions and leads to crashes,” Rader said. “Distracted driving is nothing new. Distracted driving has been around since driving was invented. We just keep inventing new ways to be distracted.”