Could texting bans actually cause crashes?

A new study of insurance data shows a surprising result: Rather than reduce collision losses, bans on texting appeared to be associated with a slight uptick in crashes in three of four states that enacted them when compared with nearby states - a perverse effect for those hoping that bans will reduce the risk of distracted-driver crashes caused by texting, which another new study links to 16,000 highway fatalities between 2001 and 2007.

Why? In particular, if noncompliance were the problem, why wouldn't the data simply show no effect?

Adrian Lund, president of the Highway Loss Data Institute and its parent organization, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the problem may be that drivers are suffering a dual distraction - first by the texting itself, and second by attempts to avoid being noticed:

If drivers were disregarding the bans, then the crash patterns should have remained steady. So clearly drivers did respond to the bans somehow, and what they might have been doing was moving their phones down and out of sight when they texted, in recognition that what they were doing was illegal. This could exacerbate the risk of texting by taking drivers' eyes further from the road and for a longer time.

Click here for the announcement and links to the new study, which is being released today at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The industry study drew sharp criticism from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who wrote in a blog entry that the study "created a cause and effect that simply doesn't exist" and ignored the role of effective enforcement.

LaHood said the portion of fatalities linked to distraction rose from 10 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2008 before stabilizing last year. "That leveling off coincided with our national anti-distracted driving campaign, other public education efforts, and an increasing number of state anti-distracted driving laws," he said. (Click here to see LaHood's blog entry.)

There's no question about cell technology's contribution to distracted driving, but a new study in the American Journal of Public Health puts some stark numbers on the risks. It estimates that texting triggered an extra 16,000 fatalities in the United States from 2001 to 2007. According to the study's abstract:

After declining from 1999 to 2005, fatalities from distracted driving increased 28% after 2005, rising from 4572 fatalities to 5870 in 2008. Crashes increasingly involved male drivers driving alone in collisions with roadside obstructions in urban areas. By use of multivariate analyses, we predicted that increasing texting volumes resulted in more than 16000 additional road fatalities from 2001 to 2007.

Conclusions. Distracted driving is a growing public safety hazard. Specifically, the dramatic rise in texting volume since 2005 appeared to be contributing to an alarming rise in distracted driving fatalities. Legislation enacting texting bans should be paired with effective enforcement to deter drivers from using cell phones while driving.

The insurance institute has been a leader in warning about the dangers of distracted driving. One of its earlier studies, based on driver phone records, linked phone use while driving to a four-fold increase in the risk of crashes that cause injuries - an increase in risk it says was supported by a Canadian study that found a four-fold increase in the risk of crashes involving property damage.

"The crash risk associated with texting hasn't been quantified as precisely, but it may be comparable, if not greater, than the risk associated with phoning," the institute says.  "Survey results indicate that many drivers, especially younger ones, shrug off these bans. Among 18-24 year-olds, the group most likely to text, 45 percent reported doing so anyway in states that bar all drivers from texting. This is just shy of the 48 percent of drivers who reported texting in states without bans. Many respondents who knew it was illegal to text said they didn't think police were strongly enforcing the ban."

Somehow, drivers have to get the message that using their phones while driving - and especially using them to read and type - puts them, and everyone near them, at heightened risk. But simply banning texting may not do the trick.