30 States Ban Texting As Researchers Question Effectiveness

September 30, 2010

A ban on texting behind the wheel went into effect Thursday in Massachusetts, one of 30 states that have taken action to rein in distracted drivers despite debate over the effectiveness of such laws.

The anti-texting measures go beyond laws against cell phone use while driving and have drawn skepticism from insurers that wonder if they are only forcing drivers to text below the dashboard level, creating a potentially greater hazard.

Texting bans are scheduled to take effect soon in Wisconsin and Delaware. They are among 30 states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam, that have passed laws against texting by drivers, the Governors Highway Safety Association said.

In April, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a texting ban while appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” A popular video on YouTube has become a graphic British public service announcement depicting a catastrophic collision after a teenage driver drifts out of her lane while texting.

The new rules form part of a broader debate over traffic safety. The latest data show 33,808 people died on U.S. roads last year, down 10 percent from 2008 and continuing a steady decline in the fatality rate per vehicle miles traveled.

Experts credit safer cars, more seat-belt usage and the recession, which has meant fewer pleasure trips. To cut the rate much further could require less popular measures like lower speed limits.

One dissenting report on the efficiency of texting bans came Tuesday from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, sponsored by companies such as Geico Group and Progressive Corp.

It found new laws against texting in California and Louisiana failed to reduce crashes and might have led to a slight increase.

One theory is the bans only led drivers to hold their devices below dashboard level to avoid tickets, taking their eyes off the road for longer periods.

“There’s no question that texting and driving or using cell phones behind the wheel are risky, and no doubt that crashes are happening because people are distracted,” institute spokesman Russ Rader said. “But the question if the laws aren’t working is what are we going to do? And we don’t know the answer yet.”


Federal officials and others in states such as Massachusetts contend there is enough data to act. Young people growing up on texting need to learn they cannot do it while driving, said state Senator Robert Hedlund, a Massachusetts Republican who backed the new law.

“We have a generation of kids where texting is becoming ingrained behavior,” Hedlund said.

Hedlund spoke at a demonstration state officials held at a shuttered military airstrip Wednesday. Journalists were paired with instructors from a driving school to learn the dangers of texting firsthand.

One reporter found that with eyes focused on punching digits into a keyboard, it took a few extra seconds to notice a red light stop signal, adding 100 feet to the distance needed to bring a 3,500-pound Toyota Camry to an emergency halt from 45 miles an hour.

The reporter boasted to the head of the driving school, Daniel Strollo, that he at least typed the correct numbers.

“Yeah, but you might have hit a few kids along the way,” Strollo replied.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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