Broad laws against cellphone use while driving reduce accidents

Different states have taken different approaches to banning cellphone use behind the wheel. While each strategy arguably has its merits, a recent study suggests that broader laws are more effective in preventing accidents than bans that apply to specific habits and behaviors.

The nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) explained that there are two main types of laws banning cellphone use behind the wheel in the United States. Some state governments ban specific actions, like making a phone call and sending a text message. Others enforce broad bans, like making it illegal to hold or use a phone for any reason while sitting in the driver’s seat on a public road.

“Technology is moving much faster than the laws,” says Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “One solution may be to make them broader, rather than trying to come up with an exhaustive list of banned behaviors.”

Reagan and his team reached this conclusion after examining the number of police-reported rear-end collisions in three states with broad bans. They discovered that monthly crash rates per 100,000 people dropped in Oregon and in Washington after laws prohibiting motorists from holding a phone while driving were enacted. Rear-end collisions didn’t drop in California. Legally, a significant difference is that Oregon and Washington made holding a phone illegal, even if the car is stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic. California’s law is more vague.

It doesn’t specify whether the ban remains enforceable if the car is stopped at a traffic light, according to the study, and it singles out “holding and using” a phone as illegal behavior, not just holding one. “Retrieving a forgotten phone from the passenger seat and attaching it to the dashboard mount, for example, might not meet the legal definition of simultaneously holding and using it,” the study explains.

Researchers then compared the number of accidents reported from 2015 to 2019 in California and Washington with those reported in Idaho and Colorado (which ban texting but not other cellphone uses) during that time period. They found that the rate of rear-end crashes stayed flat in California and dropped by 8% in Washington. Oregon’s numbers were not analyzed due to a change in rules regarding police reports.

The IIHS also reported that, unsurprisingly, a law is more effective when it’s enforced and when the penalty for breaking it is relatively severe. It’s easier for police officers to enforce a broad ban than one which includes loopholes, which could explain why distracted driving citations in Oregon rose by 50% in 2018, the year after the holding ban went into effect. Washington’s increased by 74% that year. Several other factors influence these numbers, however, including the different methods that states use to track and report these numbers.

Finally, the cost of the fine issued for breaking the law can affect those numbers. The study notes that motorists caught holding and using a phone while driving in California will be fined $20 for the first offense and $50 for the second; motorists also lose a point if they receive the second fine within three years of the first. In Oregon, those numbers rise to $136 and $234, respectively, and a third offense can bring with it a fine of up to $2,000, a criminal misdemeanor charge, and six months in jail. Washington fines motorists $265 and $440, respectively.

“Our findings suggest that other states could benefit from adopting broader laws against cellphone use while driving, but more research is needed to determine the combination of wording and penalties that is most effective,” Reagan concluded.


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