Do texting bans really work?

September 30, 2010

Do texting bans really work?Figures from an insurance industry research group suggest bans on texting by drivers have not reduced crash levels and may even have worsened the problem. But even if the conclusion is accurate, the causes are debatable.

The numbers come from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an organization best known for producing safety ratings for different model of car. It looked at four states that introduced texting bans between January 2008 and January 2009, then compared collision rates with either two or three neighboring states in each case.

Overall, there was no major difference in the patterns of crashes over time between the states introducing the bans and their neighbors. The seasonal patterns remain very consistent, with the number of crashes rising immensely (almost doubled in some cases) in December and January, which is usually attributed to increased drunk driving levels in the holiday season.

The overall numbers of crashes increased in each of the states with bans, the biggest rise being nine percent in Minnesota, while the rise was much higher among young drivers.

While the quick and dirty response is that “texting bans make things worse”, there are several possible conclusions and caveats:

  • The effects of the texting ban aren’t isolated by the study. It’s perfectly possible that the rise in crashes might be down to other factors and would have risen much more steeply without the texting bans. Looking at the IIHS graphs comparing different states, there’s no conclusive evidence to say that the texting ban made any notable difference either way.
  • The ban may be making things worse by encouraging drivers to keep phones out of sight of officials, thus meaning they have to look down from the windscreen to read texts.
  • The figures don’t tell us anything about how firmly the laws are being enforced.
  • The first year of the ban may be too early to have a marked effect on behavior: it could take time before drivers take the rule seriously, for example when they or people they know are fined for offending.
  • Driver distraction could be inevitable: those who’d previously been distracted by texting may now instead let their attention wander to phone conversations, passengers or billboards.

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