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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Texting Bans Don't Improve Road Safety: Toss or Tighten?

I was wrong... sort of. Last month, I suggested there could be a connection between U.S. House candidate Kristi Noem's habitual lawbreaking and her votes against texting-while-driving bans in the South Dakota Legislature. I stand by my contention there that Noem's disregard for the law may incline her to vote against holding other drivers accountable for dangerous behavior.

However, my original argument did not anticipate this study, which finds texting-while-driving bans do not reduce the number of highway crashes. The study actually finds a slight uptick in insurance claims for vehicle damage in three of the four states surveyed. The researchers speculate that thumb-typing addicts are not only ignoring the bans but using their devices in their laps, out of view of the cops, thus taking their eyes that much more off the road.

So what's the proper response? It's clear that texting behind the wheel is dangerous. Even if we can't stop people from doing it, we should hold accountable the folks we catch doing it. If people respond to a law against bad behavior by behaving worse, do we abolish the law? Do we seek other ways to curtail the bad behavior? Or do we conclude that the law isn't tough enough and stiffen the penalty?
Bonus Highway Mayhem: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which was involved with the texting-ban study, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year by crashing a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air into a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. Good old American steel against modern plastic—that couldn't be pretty, could it? Well, it wasn't... for the dummy driving the tail fins. Both cars were totaled, but the passenger compartment in the Malibu remained almost wholly intact, while the passenger compartment in the Bel Air crumpled into the driver. See video with commentary here.


  1. Hold the cell phone companies liable and see how long would it take them to implement technology that disables the phone at speeds above X MPH? Yes even for the passengers. When will someone challenge a DUI on the basis of cell phones causing more accidents?

    Curt Jopling

  2. There hasn't been a trip recently in which a driver has not crossed the line, partially entering my lane, before they correct themselves. In each case, they are looking down in their lap texting, or holding the phone against the steering wheel texting.

    My daughter's phone has voice to text technology for receiving messages, so why can't there be voice to text for outgoing messages. No buttons to push, simply talk and it converts your words to text for the recipient.

    The best policy is no cell phone use while the car is in use, but many people are insecure and feel if they don't respond immediately, or if they don't send someone every single thought they have, someone's feelings will be hurt.

    Until technology cures it, people won't stop, and with those texting minutes generating revenue, don't expect changes soon from the industry. In our insurance industry, regardless of what studies and reports are telling the public, internal information says texting (inattentive driving) accounts for up to 50% of accidents today. That's an off-the-scale increase over ten years ago.

  3. GoldMan-

    I have a Droid-X and it does speech to txt for txt messages (and everything actually, like navigation/web/etc.). Everything is voice activated. I just speak into it who I want to text, it confirms by saying the name, and then let's me talk into it to convert to txt and asks for confirmation of what it has interpreted.

    The technology exists, but is expensive right now. Within 3-5 years though it will be standard on even the free phones the cell carriers provide.

    I love the droid x because everything is voice activated. I only use the touch screen when I'm in meetings/need privacy/need to see what's on the screen.

  4. Tony: the studies say that having a conversation with someone on the phone is more distracting/dangerous than having a conversation with someone in the car. What's the distraction/danger level associated with having a conversation with your phone?

  5. CAH-

    My guess is that it is actually substantially lower. It's a voice activated menu, not a conversation. It doesn't require higher order brain function, just like how you can keep a car in the center of the lane without thinking to your self "left, no right!" constantly.

    Now, if my phone started asking me about the weather, how I'm feeling, etc. it would be just as distracting as a phone call/conversation.

  6. It's sort of like drunk driving: passing laws against DD didn't automatically decrease the incidence. It took severe consequences to decrease the numbers, and even today, as we all know, there are some people who still get drunk and drive. Repeatedly. People who text and/or use their cell phones are absolutely certain that they're fine, just fine, and aren't doing any harm, and won't do any harm, and are in perfect control of their car. They might as well be drinking. My favorite is a young man who was texting while walking across the grocery store parking lot and walked into my parked car...


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