Federal Study Finds Decrease in Distracted Driving

Auto insurers are heralding the results of a federal transportation study they say shows a steep drop in distracted driving as a result of crackdowns on cell phone use behind the wheel.

The research is based on pilot programs in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., where officials measured the combined effects of tough legislation, stepped-up law enforcement and public education campaigns about talking and texting while driving.

“The findings pointed to significant reductions in distracted driving behaviors,” Brian Boyden, executive vice president of State Farm, said in a news release. “The ultimate goal that everyone is working on is to reduce crashes.”

Nearly 5,500 people were killed nationwide in 2009 in vehicle crashes involving distracted driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Distracted driving played a role in 16 percent of all traffic deaths that year and resulted in a half-million other injuries, officials said.

Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and Guam have banned texting and nine states—including New York and Connecticut—have outlawed any hand-held cell phone use while driving.

In the yearlong study, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials measured the effects of stricter enforcement and greater public awareness by observing cell phone use and carrying out surveys at driver licensing offices in the two cities.

They reported that:

–Both talking and texting while driving declined by one-third in Syracuse

–Hartford saw a 57 percent drop in talking on cell phones and a nearly 75 percent dip in texting while driving

The study “clearly shows that combining strong laws with strong enforcement can bring about a sea change in public attitudes and behavior,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a news release.

Insurers have warned consumers for years about the dangers of cell phone use and other behaviors that can distract motorists.

Industry officials say distracted driving leads to needless deaths, injuries and property damage, particularly among younger motorists, who are most likely to drive distracted. That’s just one more reason that it can be especially difficult to find cheap insurance for young drivers, officials said.

Not everyone agrees with the logic behind the crackdowns, however.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported in 2010 that a study of data from four states that had enacted texting bans found that insurance claims for vehicles damaged in crashes increased in three of those states.

“These findings indicated that texting bans might even increase the risk associated with texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws,” Adrian Lund, president of the nonprofit research group, said in the report.

The study was conducted by the IIHS’ sister group, the Highway Loss Data Institute, and officials said it was in keeping with a previous study on driver cell phone use.

That report, issued in February 2010, found that claims for collision coverage immediately before and after driver texting was banned in California and two other states found no significant decrease.

The findings “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes,” Lund said.

Under the pilot programs, police in Syracuse and Hartford increased enforcement during four periods over the course of a year. Officers in Syracuse issued nearly 9,600 citations for cell phone violations and their counterparts in Hartford handed out nearly 9,700.

The programs also featured a media campaign about the dangers of cell phone use that was similar to the national “Click It or Ticket” campaign, officials said.

The NHTSA plans to test the programs on a statewide level, although no date has been announced.

 

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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