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Study: Cell Phone Laws Don't Curb Crashes

Concerns about the dangers of texting while driving have sparked a flurry of activity among policymakers at both the state and federal levels, but a new study has found no correlation between laws that ban the use of cell phones while driving and a reduction in accidents.

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a research organization funded by the insurance industry, examined the claims rates in four jurisdictions with laws barring motorists from using cell phones without hands-free devices, and found no material change in crash rates once the bans took effect.

The study noted that laws banning the use of handheld devices can be difficult to enforce, and suggested that simply taking the device out of a driver's hand (i.e. by allowing hands free speaker phones) doesn't reduce the underlying distraction of carrying on a conversation while driving.

"Whatever the reason, the key finding is that crashes aren't going down where hand-held phone use has been banned," Adrian Lund, president of HLDI and its parent group, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said in a statement. "This finding doesn't auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving."

Cracking down on distracted driving has emerged as a key priority at the Department of Transportation, where federal highway regulators have been pushing rules to rein in cell-phone use on the road. Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced rules barring commercial truck drivers from texting while driving.

In defense of cell phone use restrictions

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of DoT, was quick to criticize the insurance industry study.

"It is irresponsible to suggest that laws banning cell phone use while driving have zero effect on the number of crashes on our nation's roadways," NHTSA said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com, citing a study from the University of Utah that found driving while on the phone to be as dangerous as driving drunk.

"We know that by enacting and enforcing tough laws, states have reduced the number of crashes leading to injuries and fatalities," the agency said, arguing that laws work to the greatest effect when paired with vigorous public awareness campaigns such as those advertising enforcement of drunk-driving or seat belt statutes.

To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning the use of cell phones while driving without a hands-free device.

The HLDI study looked at the number of collisions in California, Connecticut, New York and D.C. before and after the cell-phone bans went into effect in those jurisdictions. The group found that the laws didn't affect the accident rate, which held steady both on a month-to-month comparison and when viewed alongside neighboring jurisdictions that do not have laws against handheld phone use.

"The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," Lund said, arguing that hands-free policies are no panacea for the problem of distracted driving.

Both the auto and wireless industries have come out in favor of laws banning texting while driving. CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, has been sponsored a public-service ad campaign on television warning of the dangers of the practice.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.