Drivers texting despite laws, report shows

Fairfax County is kicking off a major enforcement effort targeting motorists who text while driving or engage in other forms of distracted driving. Police showed drivers what distractions can do to your driving on the Fairfax County Driver Training Track. And then Capt. Susan H. Culin, commander of the Fairfax traffic division, gave it a go.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 6:54 PM

It's been almost 150 years since the first speeding law took effect, yet people speed all the time, and even strict enforcement has limited impact.

Text messaging has been around for about a dozen years, with public surveys showing overwhelming agreement that it's a dangerous distraction while driving. And new laws against it have had little effect, according to a new study issued Tuesday.

The report by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry-funded research group, compared crash rates in four states that have prohibited texting with those in states where it is allowed. It found no reduction in states where it is banned.

"The point of texting bans is to reduce crashes, and by this essential measure the laws are ineffective," said Adrian Lund, president of the research group and of the affiliated Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

An estimated 450,000 people were killed or injured last year in distracted driving accidents.

Lund contends that, at a time when state legislatures are increasing speed limits to 75 mph, the safety efforts have been "sidetracked" by focusing on reports of unintended acceleration and distracted driving.

"The hyper-visibility of these issues diverts attention from initiatives that have far greater potential to save lives," Lund said in August. "We need to look for the next big idea like airbags and get it done."

The architect of the distracted driving campaign, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said his attack on cellphone use while driving has not come at the expense of other safety initiatives. He also has been a vocal advocate against drunk driving, and for seat belt use and other safety efforts. Highway death tolls are at their lowest level since 1950.

"This report is completely misleading," he said. "Distracted driving-related crashes killed nearly 5,500 people in 2009 and injured almost half a million more. Lives are at stake, and all the reputable research we have says that tough laws, good enforcement and increased public awareness will help put a stop to the deadly epidemic of distracted driving on our roads."

The texting issue has been the point of the spear in LaHood's distracted driving campaign, which has included a pair of major conferences to address the issue. Though he has long advocated that cellphones not be used while driving, sending text messages was deemed more dangerous and banning the practice was more politically palatable in the nascent distracted driving effort.

Surveys have shown overwhelming support for a ban on text messaging, but the majority of drivers says they want to continue to use their cellphones behind the wheel. That reality played into the debate on Sunday, when a coalition of state highway safety officials voted against endorsement of a cellphone ban because, as their spokesman put it, "We don't want this to become like the speeding issue, which we've already lost. Everybody speeds."

The institute research presented Tuesday compared collision rates in four states with texting bans - California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington - with states in which texting while driving is not prohibited. Researchers also compared collision rates in the four states before and after the ban was imposed.

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