Insurance group says focusing on texting ban while driving isn't enough

Driving while talking on, dialing or hanging up a phone was linked to 3.4% of the crashes, looking at other objects in the car was associated with 3.2% and talking with a passenger was a factor in nearly 16% of crashes, the largest percentage.

Cellphones are "yet another thing that's distracting people," but a "flood of new distractions are being built into vehicles," says Flaura Winston, scientific director at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Laws banning texting or handheld phones are "not the panacea," as drivers will find something else to distract them, she says.

This Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will join safety advocates and businesses to celebrate the first anniversary of an advocacy group called FocusDriven, which was formed to combat distracted drivers. LaHood has repeatedly said he thinks distracted driving is a major problem in American society.

In the current issue of CL we've written an article about the potential for Florida to join 30 other states around the country who have already enacting laws banning texting while driving.

Eight other states go further than the Sunshine State, and ban hand-held cellphone use in autos.

In our piece, we quoted Ellyn Bogdanoff, former chair of the House Finance and Tax Council, whose refusal to call a for a vote on the bill in her committee in 2010 killed any chance for a legislative remedy for Florida.  Bogdanoff questioned whether such laws actually do what advocates say they do- which is save lives.

Now the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety(IIHS) says there's no evidence that distracted driving is leading to more crashes, or that laws banning texting while driving are having any effect (but only because those states still allow drivers to speak with hands free phones).

USA Today reported on Monday that safety experts question how much such legislation works when there is little reliable data on how to prevent deaths and injuries from other causes.

Although studies by IIHS and others show using a cellphone while driving quadruples the risk of a crash, IIHS research shows there was no concurrent increase in crashes as the number of cellphones increased throughout the 2000s. The institute is also studying how states "code" crash causes from police reports. Lund says it could be that changes in the numbers are due to more concern about distracted driving, rather than more distracted-driving crashes.

"That's a bias in the data," he says, noting IIHS is "wary" of using it to measure distracted driving over time.

Many people involved in a crash or stopped by a police officer for bad driving wouldn't acknowledge cellphone use to a police officer because they'd fear getting cited for reckless driving, says Harsha. She calls it a "really, really challenging issue to collect data on and ... to enforce the laws."

In an analysis of 7,000 crashes released in September, NHTSA concluded 30% involved some type of distraction but found that of 14 sources of distraction in a car, texting while driving was the only one that was not a factor. (The Transportation Department notes it studied crashes in 2005 through 2007 and the number of monthly text messages has increased from about 7 billion in 2005 to about 173 billion in 2010.)

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