July 8, 2011

Cell Phones Distract Drivers Even When Banned

A new report by U.S. vehicle safety group Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) finds that despite nationwide initiatives to ban cell phone use while driving, there is no evidence they are effective, as up to 25 percent of car accidents are still attributed to cell phone use behind the wheel.

The 40-page report, "Distracted Driving: What Research Shows and What States Can Do," released Thursday, urges states to enact bans on texting while driving and cellphone use by novice drivers, even as it confirmed there is "no solid evidence that any [ban] is effective in reducing crashes, injuries, or fatalities."

The report also called on employers, automakers and the federal government to continue to develop tests and bring about measures to combat all forms of distracted driving. But the report mainly focused its attention on distractions caused by cell phone use.

The GHSA study assessed research from more than 350 scientific papers published since 2000. It shows that drivers are distracted up to half of the time and that accidents caused by distractions range from minor damage to fatal injury. Cell phone use in general raises the risk of having an accident, but texting is likely to raise that risk much more than general cell phone usage.

"Despite all that has been written about driver distraction, there is still a lot that we do not know," GHSA executive director Barbara Harsha said in a statement. "While distracted driving is an emotional issue that raises the ire of many on the road, states must take a research-based approach to addressing the problem."

"Clearly, more studies need to be done addressing both the scope of the problem and how to effectively address it," she said. "Until more research is conducted, states need to proceed thoughtfully, methodically and objectively."

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that in 2009 alone, nearly 5,500 fatalities and nearly half a million injuries resulted from accidents involving distracted driving.

"When it comes to distracted driving, one thing is clear: any activities that take extended focus away from the primary task of driving are both unsafe and unwise," Lynda Tran, spokeswoman for the NHTSA, told Reuters in a statement.

The GHSA report found that there was no conclusive evidence whether hands-free cellphone use is less risky than hand-held use. Evidence is also lacking on whether cell phone or texting bans have reduced crashes or injuries.

As of June 2011, 34 states and the District of Columbia had adopted texting bans for all drivers, but a 2010 study conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HDLI) found that such bans did not reduce collision claims.

In fact, claims increased slightly in states with texting bans compared to other non-banned states. HDLI suggested "texters may realize that texting bans are difficult to enforce, so they may have little incentive to reduce texting for fear of being detected and fined." The institute also suggested that texters may have responded to the ban by "hiding their phones from view, potentially increasing their distractive effects by requiring longer glances away from the road."

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made distracted driving his main priority, saying he is on a "rampage" to curb it. He supports bans on all handheld device use behind the wheel.

"Any activities that take extended focus away from the primary task of driving are both unsafe and unwise," said Tran. "While NHTSA agrees with the GHSA recommendation that states should take a data-driven approach in making decisions about whether to push for laws mandating certain driver behaviors, we feel strongly there is robust evidence on the dangers of distracted driving."

The GHSA study was paid for by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest U.S. auto insurer.

You can read the report on the GHSA website: http://www.ghsa.org/html/publications/sfdist.html.


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