Driver Distractions and Regulatory Dystopia

Article excerpt

In December 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for traffic safety and investigating traffic-related accidents, recommended that all states ban drivers from using portable electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle. The board's recommended prohibition would cover hands-free as well as handheld devices.

According to March 2012 data collected by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit research group funded by the vehicle insurance industry, 35 states and the District of Columbia presently ban text messaging for all drivers; seven additional states ban novice drivers from texting; and three of those seven states also ban school bus drivers from texting while operating their vehicles. In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia presently ban handheld cell phone use by drivers; 30 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use for novice drivers; and 19 states and the District of Columbia prohibit cell phone use by drivers when operating a school bus. Also, many localities have enacted their own bans on cell phone usage or texting while driving. Interestingly, no state or the District of Columbia presently bans the use of hands-free telecommunication devices for the general populace.

Accident reduction? | Despite the NTSB's recommendation, recent research studies suggest that PED bans may have little effect on traffic safety. In a December 2009 study by the Highway Data Loss Institute, an organization affiliated with the IIHS, researchers concluded that, while handheld cell phone usage generally declined following implementation of a ban in the three states surveyed [California (inconclusive data), Connecticut (76 percent), and New York (47 percent)] and the District of Columbia (76 percent), insurance collision loss experience data analysis did not indicate a decrease in crash risk. Similarly, a September 2010 study released by the Highway Data Loss Institute found no reductions in motor vehicle crashes after text messaging bans went into effect in four states (California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington). In fact, in this study, the enactment of such legislation was found to be associated with a slight, statistically significant increase (a range of 1-9 percent) in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damages after vehicular crashes in three (California, Louisiana, and Minnesota) of the four states studied (Washington having a statistically insignificant 1 percent increase).

Results of a July 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found that texting drivers increased their probability of crashing 23.2 times, but dialing a cell phone only increased the risk of accident by 2.8 times, and talking or listening to a cell phone conversation increased the risk 1.3 times. In comparison, reaching for an object while driving an automobile increases the risk of an accident by 1.4 times. According to the VTTI, the major factor whether or not a traffic accident occurs is having the driver keep his eyes on the road, as the odds of a crash or near-crash more than doubled when a driver's eyes were off the road ahead for more than two seconds.


Recent data on nationwide automobile fatalities shed additional light on the driver distraction controversy. For 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 32,788 people died as result of motor vehicle accidents on American roadways. That is the lowest level of fatalities since 1949, when there were 30,246 fatalities recorded. Also for 2010, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven fell to an historic low of 1.09. According to NHTSA, the 3,092 distraction-related reported fatalities in 2010 (down 43.5 percent from 5,474 fatalities in 2009) are attributed to a variety of driver distractions, including cell phone use and texting, eating, drinking, conversing with passengers, interacting with in-vehicle technologies and PEDs, daydreaming, and dealing with intense emotions. …