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)