Don’t Let Research Distract from Safe Driving Efforts

March 24, 2010

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. Many of them were teens.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, seven states currently ban driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone. The use of all cell phones by novice drivers is restricted in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 19 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in nine states.

Meanwhile, Florida, Kentucky and Alabama are among the states weighing their own bans.

Nearly one out of five U.S. drivers surveyed has read or sent a text message while behind the wheel, according to a recent AAA survey – even though they consider such action unacceptable.

The AAA, the National Safety Council and most safety advocates have urged texting bans for drivers in all 50 states.

But recently an insurance industry study questioned whether these state laws are worth enacting.

The Highway Loss Data Institute study found that claims rates did not go down after the laws were enacted. It also found no change in patterns compared with nearby states without such bans.

HLDI is a respected research group but its results in this study seem to defy everyday experience, common sense and human psychology.

HLDI itself said its findings “don’t match what we already know about the risk of phoning and texting while driving” and it is gathering data to “figure out this mismatch.” One explanation could be an increase in the use of hands-free devices in places with bans on handset use while driving.

Dr. Amit Almor, a psychology researcher at the University of South Carolina, says language and driving are complex activities that tax the brain in many ways. Almor completed two studies in 2008 and 2009 that looked at the demands on the brain when talking on cell phones while driving. Texting adds another layer of language and motor skills, which Almor warns can make for a lethal combination.

“Verbal communication is a complex combination of listening, thought generating and talking. Driving involves assessment and decision-making and an array of motor skills,” Almor says. “Talking on a cell phone while driving is distracting and dangerous. Texting is far worse, as it adds another motor skill and keeps the driver in a different mental space for a much longer period of time.”

Adrian Lund, HLDI president, said the group’s finding doesn’t bode well “for any safety payoff from all the new laws.”

The National Governors Association said the HLDI study “raises as many questions as it answers” and is urging states to pass texting bans, but hold off on banning other cell phone use while driving until there is more data.

Follow-up research should be put on a fast track. States do not need more laws that don’t work but they also shouldn’t let one study keep them from their safety mission. Isn’t it always better to be safe than sorry?

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