Texting while driving may be very dangerous, but state laws banning the activity are not reducing the number of auto crashes, a new study claims.
The researchers calculated rates of collision claims for vehicles in California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington, immediately before and immediately after those states banned texting while driving.
Not only did the researchers find that crashes did not decrease after texting bans, they found that in three states, crashes actually increased slightly.
"We want to be very, very clear. Texting while driving or using a cell phone while driving is definitely hazardous. It's just that laws enacted to reduce this behavior are not reducing crashes," said Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Highway Loss Data Institute.
Although the study only focused on four states, she said there's no reason why the findings wouldn't apply to the 26 other states that have also adopted texting-while-driving laws.
"The point of texting bans is to reduce crashes, and by this essential measure the laws are ineffective," Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (HLDI-IIHS), said in a statement.
He also said that the finding that collisions went up after texting bans indicates that those bans might even increase the risk for texting drivers.
The study will be presented today at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association. It comes as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood ramps up the Department of Transportation's efforts to combat distracted driving.
"This report is completely misleading," said LaHood in a statement after the study was made public. "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."
LaHood said the new report is not in line with previous research supported by the HLDI-IIHS, which shows that drivers are four times more likely to crash if using a handheld device behind the wheel.
In a blog post, LaHood said there are several flaws in the study, chief among them that "they have created a cause and effect that simply doesn't exist."
"For example, we have a national law against drunk driving. People are also required to wear seat belts," he wrote. "But if the number of fatalities in a state goes up one year, would it now pass as "research" to say that seat belt and anti-drunk driving laws are to blame?"
Distracted-driving laws may be the first step but enforcement must follow it, he said, adding that in pilot programs pairing the two have "drastically" reduced distracted-driving behavior. In Hartford, Conn., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that texting while driving has dropped 68 percent over the past six months. In Syracuse, N.Y., it has declined 42 percent.
Sec. LaHood's statement about the pilot programs did not mention collision rates -- the department's own study will take a year to complete -- but he pointed out that while NHTSA found that distracted-driving fatalities rose from 10 to 16 percent of all traffic fatalities between 2005 and 2008, the figure plateaued for the first time in 2009.
The reports coincide with the transportation department's national anti-distracted driving campaign and other public awareness efforts.
Last week, LaHood convened a second National Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to distracted driving, which, the department says, is responsible for one in every six highway deaths.
Jonathan Atkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said his organization welcomes the dialogue and research.
"We don't necessarily agree with the results or like the results, but we want to learn from them and see how we can strengthen these programs and bans," he said, adding that the HDLI-IIHS study is just one of several studies.
He said the association continues to support texting bans and wants every state to adopt one, but said they need to strengthen enforcement to make them more effective.
"This is not definitive, this is not the end. We're really just at the beginning," he said. "We're really where we were with drunk driving about 20 years ago. We know there's a problem, but we don't quite know what to do about it."