Backer of Pa. texting ban says insurance study off-base

Yesterday, insurance-industry researchers raised a stir by linking texting-while-driving bans to unexpected upticks in accidents.  They blamed the seemingly perverse result on detection-avoidance behavior, suggesting that drivers put themselves (and others) at extra risk as they tried to hide their texting from prying eyes. (You can read about the study  here.)

In Pennsylvania, State Rep. Josh Shapiro is working hard to win final agreement on a texting ban similar to those in effect in 30 other states. I asked him about the insurance institute's study, and here's his response:

The insurance company-backed study is like swiss cheese — its full of holes. Our best weapon to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities on our roadways in Pennsylvania is to pass a comprehensive distracted driver law that bans the use of handheld cell phones and texting while driving and ensures strict enforcement and significant education — especially to teen drivers.


The study is inconclusive at best and has a flawed conclusion. Here’s why —


First, the study actually does not look at crashes, it just considers claims. There are numerous crashes that do not result in claims each day in Pennsylvania and across the country. Additionally, the sample of claims only involves cars less than 9 years old. Limiting the pool eliminates many crashes of older cars often driven by younger drivers who are also the category of people to be most likely to text and drive.


Second, it conflicts with several other studies that show a decrease in the number of crashes and fatalities from using a cell phone while driving. A Public Policy Institute of California study showed a decrease in the number of fatalities between 9-21 percent in states with hands-free laws. Another study conducted by the University of Utah showed the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be just as profound as drunk driving.


Third, here in Pennsylvania, according to PennDot, the total number of reported crashes between 2002-08 where the driver was using a hand held cell phone was 8,034 compared to just 479 where the driver was on a hands-free phone. This clearly demonstrates that limiting hand held cell phone use limits the number of crashes. Nationwide, fatalities linked to distracted driving in the U.S. rose from 10 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2008. This fact directly contradicts the claims made in the insurance company backed study


The flawed study seems to suggest that if we can’t ban all distractions then we shouldn’t ban any. That’s just plain silly and runs contrary to public opinion and the position of the editorial page of this newspaper. We have the tools, technology and public will today to end a major driver distraction by passing my legislation in Pennsylvania and we ought to act swiftly to do so.


It's tempting to consider those foolish enough to text while driving as candidates for the Darwin Awards, given somewhat tongue-in-cheek to "those who improve the species ... by accidentally removing themselves from it."

But as policymakers such as Shapiro point out — U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made similar points in a blog entry — drivers who text don't just put their own lives at risk.  So it's worth banning the practice and then doing everything possible to make sure texters actually quit, rather than just hide their behavior below eye level.