Are We Doing the Right Thing to Stop Distracted Driving?

Feb 11, 2011

Looking in driver side miror at lady in car behindTransportation Secretary Ray LaHood regularly refers to distracted driving as an "epidemic." Toyota said last week it will spend $50 million on research into issues including distracted driving, a "growing cause of accidents." And state legislators are racing to enact laws banning what they see as the culprit: text messaging and handheld cellphones.


Yet the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says there's no evidence that distracted driving is leading to more crashes or that laws banning texting or handheld cells are having any effect, possibly because hands-free phones can be just as dangerous.

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.

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.

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.

Automakers, which are regulated by NHTSA, are actively supporting LaHood's effort on distracted driving. They almost uniformly support bans on handheld cellphones but would oppose efforts to restrict hands-free calls. Mike Stanton, CEO of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, says his group's priority for state legislation will be getting texting and handheld bans passed that apply to all drivers and allow police to pull over people just for using their phones while driving. Stanton says there is not enough research to support restrictions on hands-free phones.

Read the rest of this article at USA Today.

Photo courtesy of Jim Legans, Jr. and re-used under the Creative Commons license.