New research released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that “broader” bans on cell phone usage while driving may prevent car crashes more effectively than narrower bans on texting while driving. As a news release by the nonprofit organization explains, its researchers looked at crash rates in three US states with those broader prohibitions of “holding or using a phone or similar electronic device while in the driver seat on a public road.” They looked specifically at “the laws’ effect on police-reported rear-end crashes,” drawing on existing research that suggests such activities are connected with “a much larger increase in the odds of those crashes than any other type.”
Their findings, the resulting paper’s lead author said, were complicated. In Oregon and Washington, those laws were followed by significant decreases in crash rates; in California, this was not the case. All three states passed their broad prohibitions on holding a phone while driving in 2017, with specific language clarifying “that the only acceptable cellphone interaction was via hands-free systems that required minimal manual input.” But as the IIHS researchers note, whereas Oregon and Washington prohibited drivers from holding a phone even when a vehicle is temporarily stopped, California did not make such a specific prohibition. The latter state also forbade drivers from “holding and using” their phones, rather than simply “holding” them. As the IIHS notes, this “made it possible, at least theoretically, for a cited driver to argue that they were holding their phone but not using it, and therefore weren’t violating the law.”
The IIHS compared the crash rates—specifically, monthly crashes for every 100,000 drivers—with rates in Colorado and Idaho, which both had narrower laws against texting while driving. What they found was that “Compared with Colorado and Idaho, monthly rear-end injury crash rates dropped 9 percent in Oregon and 11 percent in Washington.” Crash rates in California, meanwhile, ticked upwards by 2 percent, though the IIHS notes that this is a statistically insignificant figure.
“The mixed results suggest that broader cellphone laws can work,” said the study’s lead author, “but the specific wording and other factors like the severity of the penalties seem to make a difference.” Specifically, the IIHS suggests that the broader ban on holding a phone while driving may increase compliance as well as enforcement, reducing potential grey areas and making “police more willing to issue tickets by making infractions easier to identify and less likely to be dismissed in court.”
More information on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s research into whether broad bans on cell phone usage while driving reduce car crash rates is available via the IIHS.
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