Drivers texting despite laws, report shows

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.

They found that rather than a decline in texting-related collisions, "there appears to have been a small increase in claims in the states enacting texting bans" which "suggests that texting drivers have responded to the law . . . by hiding their phones from view."

"If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it," the authors said.

Lund cautioned that "finding no reduction in crashes, or even a small increase, doesn't mean it's safe to text and drive. . . . It's just that bans aren't reducing this crash risk."

Although someone talking on a cellphone might be easier for a police officer to spot, the best hint that someone is engaged in text messaging usually is that they are looking at their lap, rather than the road. That makes enforcement a challenge.

That was illustrated by federally funded crackdowns this summer in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., both states that ban texting while driving and require drivers to use hands-free devices to make calls. Syracuse issued 4,172 citations to violators and 284 to texters. The results were similar in Hartford.

"Our reaction [to the institute report] is that we are not surprised as state enforcement of texting bans is really now just getting underway," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, at whose convention the report was presented. "The New York and Connecticut demos offer a lot of promise and we expect states to use what was learned.

"That said, there is not currently a federal pool of money for states to access for distracted driving enforcement much like there is for drunk driving and seat belt use," Adkins said. "Until more funding is available, we don't expect states to be able to undertake serious enforcement efforts comparable to what is done for drunk driving."

Text messaging while driving is banned in the District, Maryland and Virginia, although the Virginia law is so limited as to be unenforceable. Frustrated by the law, Fairfax County police recently announced that they would use an old statute requiring drivers to "pay full time and attention" to crack down on the texters.

Lon Anderson, mid-Atlantic spokesman for AAA, said the institute findings indicated the failure of state legislatures to provide law enforcement with effective laws.

"We have, unfortunately, set the police up for failure," he said. "Would good laws strictly enforced do the job? In our opinion, yes."

Anderson said it would take time for public opinion to get behind the distracted driving campaign.

"It took a couple of decades before people recognized the problem of drunk driving," he said. "We need to have a sea change on the part of drivers on this issue."

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