By on February 1, 2010

The Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institutes For Highway Safety, reports that an audit of insurance claim filings shows no reduction in claim amounts in states with bans on cell phone use in cars. According to the report:

HLDI researchers calculated monthly collision claims per 100 insured vehicle years (a vehicle year is 1 car insured for 1 year, 2 insured for 6 months each, etc.) for vehicles up to 3 years old during the months immediately before and after hand-held phone use was banned while driving in New York (Nov. 2001), the District of Columbia (July 2004), Connecticut (Oct. 2005), and California (July 2008). Comparable data were collected for nearby jurisdictions without such bans. This method controlled for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans — changes in the number of miles driven due to the economy, seasonal changes in driving patterns, etc.

Month-to-month fluctuations in rates of collision claims in jurisdictions with bans didn’t change from before to after the laws were enacted. Nor did the patterns change in comparison with trends in jurisdictions that didn’t have such laws.

Because the HLDI didn’t research phone usage to draw a causal connection between phone use and insurance claims, this study can’t prove whether hands-free phone use is as dangerous and handheld phoning while driving, or if the bans simply don’t limit the use of handheld phones while driving. Given the challenges of handheld phone ban enforcement and the fact that hands-free phone use hasn’t been proven to be less dangerous, either possiblity is equally likely. The HLDI concludes:

Whatever the reason, the key finding is that crashes aren’t going down where hand-held phone use has been banned. This finding doesn’t auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving.

This ambiguity means more headaches for automakers like Ford, who hope to market hands-free capabilities like those enabled by the Sync system on fears of distracted driving. Had this study been able to find a link between hands-free laws and a decrease in insurance claims, that marketing angle might still have the strength of a fear factor behind it. But for every study like this that fails to conclusively prove the safety advantages of hands-free technology, the possibility grows that this technology will end up being seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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22 Comments on “IIHS: Hand-Held Cell Phone Bans Don’t Work...”

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    We’ve got a cell phone ban here in New Jersey. It’s so effective that about half of the cops-behind-the-wheel in my small burg can be seen talking on their cell phones as they drive. I might even throw in that at least one fourth of the motorists talk-n-drive too.

    Point is, don’t pass laws you don’t intend to enforce.

    • 0 avatar

      *rofl* — I actually yelled at some guy on a bag phone “hang up and drive” when I first moved down here (8 years ago) that turned out to be a uniformed police officer in an an unmarked car :o

      He ignored me.

  • avatar

    I think tying this to Ford’s investment in Sync is a stretch, Ed. Ford has been marketing Sync on the capability and convenience of the system, and by all accounts Sync delivers on both. What you linked to was one blog post last fall when there was a bill before Congress.

    And does the study take into account what kind of hands free solutions are being used? How many cell phone users in these states are still hand dialing the number? If that is still predominant, then I wouldn’t expect accident rates to go down because you still have the period when a drivers eyes are off the road.

    • 0 avatar

      SYNC is BRILLIANT because it can take text messages, display them on the navigation screen and then allow the driver to reply with a single button press; [yes], [no], [maybe], [later] etc

      If every company had this, coupled with bluetooth cellphones, we’d have no problem so long as people used it.

      The REAL PROBLEM is these dumb ass drivers driving around texting. When you text, you are BLIND TO THE ROAD. There is no way to drive and text safely.

      YES IT IS THE JOB OF THE GOVERNMENT TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUE. They are using it to create revenue, but, driving is a PRIVALEGE, NOT A RIGHT…therefore, the gov has the right to abridge what we can and can’t do behind the wheel.

    • 0 avatar

      As for dialing the phone number by hand, my s550 has a dialpad that connects with my iPhone seamlessly and allows me to dial a number without taking my eyes too far off the road – if at all.

      FORD SYNC has a touchscreenn dialpad.

      Benz and BMW have dialpads in their cars next to the radio controls.

      Everyone is addressing the issue, but I think there needs to be a more standardized approach. The government should state that ALL CARS must have built in bluetooth standard in their radio systems starting in 2011 models.

    • 0 avatar

      “I think tying this to Ford’s investment in Sync is a stretch,”


      Ford has sold this gimmick on the premise that it’s a safer alternative to traditional cell phone use (in hand).

      That…FACTUALLY…is not true. With the SYNC gimmick, Ford is ENCOURAGING the practice of driving while distracted.

      Soon, SYNC will be your own in-car bartender…providing you with the best drinks as you drive down the road…texting and facebooking, and twittering, and talking on the phone. And Ford will have no problem with that. That is the way Ford operates. They don’t care that they are contributing to the deaths of people by encouraging people to drive distracted…as long as it helps their bottom line.

  • avatar

    I can’t help but anecdotally disagree with this news based on the common sense of not screwing around with something while you’re driving is safer. The less you have to do with your hands and eyes while driving DOES put more attention on the road . . .

    What I think we’re faced with the old “checking your makeup” or “combing your hair in the mirror” problem: if you’re a distracted type of person (you want to do something other than drive in a car), you’ll find something else to distract you, even if it’s not a phone.

    The utter common sense of NOT texting and driving was totally lost on people, and I think the handheld bans at least provide more ability to prosecute someone who has DONE something wrong. Not perfect, I know.

    I think it SHOULD be mandatory that the OPTION be made available to everyone buying a new car, even on base models — the 2009 Tribeca didn’t HAVE bluetooth as an option????? I had to order/install a Parrot (which was actually a good solution for my family)

  • avatar

    Its close to impossible to enforce. Texting is even harder considering they would be doing in their lap away from the view of most officiers.

    Moreover, hands-free systems are statistically equally dangerous, but would be close to impossible to catch even if it was illegal (which it is not).

    The statistics prove that. In 2008 almost 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured in crashes related to cellphone distraction.

    The reality of course is that likely more accidents are caused by cellphones but when the accident happens the person using it would quickly turn it off or not admit to it (unless there is a witness its hard to prove) and an officer isn’t allowed to check someone personal property without just cause. The cause of the accident may not even be phone calls and texting, the individual could be writing an Email, IM or checking Facebook from his iPhone or Blackberry.

    The distractions in the car are increasing dramatically in the last few years, besides texting, iPods, GPS, and internet on your phone isn’t helping. How long until we see someone reading TTAC from an iPad while driving? Now with Microsoft CE on your dashboard, Ford is even talking about putting “apps” into your car.

    • 0 avatar

      You are correct in that the number of potential distractions is increasing. However, according to the NHTSA, the number of crashes and fatalities has remained relatively stable (actually, they are trending downward).

      Oh, and the number of people killed and injured in crashes related to cellphone distraction is a guess on the part of the NHTSA. Like you said, the reality is unknowable, but people seem to be adapting to new distractions.

      Distractions have always been a part of driving and always will be. Whether it’s a cell phone, a newspaper (yes, I’ve seen that), makeup, eating, or screaming kids, something may distract a driver. Some can handle those distractions and some cannot.

  • avatar

    “This ambiguity means more headaches for automakers like Ford, who hope to market hands-free capabilities like those enabled by the Sync system on fears of distracted driving. Had this study been able to find a link between hands-free laws and a decrease in insurance claims, that marketing angle might still have the strength of a fear factor behind it.”

    Since when did any marketing angle based on fear have any basis in fact? People have a visceral hunch that texting or dialing or holding a phone in their hands is an inherently dangerous practice, which is enough to give the angle credibility. How ironic would it be if this hunch helps sell more Sync-equipped Fords while having a negligible effect on the rates of distracted driving related accidents?

  • avatar

    If driving with just one hand on the wheel were the problem, stick-shifts would have been outlawed years ago.

    I think the police should drive around with a video camera mounted on the front of the car (for proof) and start giving tickets to people for blatantly disobeying the law in some way other than speeding… lane change without signaling, improper lane use while turning, stopping in the crosswalk for a red light, etc. These are all indications of a careless and/or distracted driver. If people get in their heads that they should follow all the rules all the time then not talking on the phone would seem to make sense (plus there will be general consensus that speed limits need to be raised).

    • 0 avatar

      Just WAIT until everyone gets RFIDs and you can be crowsourced a ticket :o

    • 0 avatar

      I think the police should drive around with a video camera mounted on the front of the car (for proof) and start giving tickets to people for blatantly disobeying the law in some way other than speeding…

      Not gonna happen. That’s not a revenue stream…

      Just WAIT until everyone gets RFIDs and you can be crowsourced a ticket :o

      How diabolically Singaporean. And it IS a revenue stream.

    • 0 avatar

      Not gonna happen. That’s not a revenue stream…

      It can be made a revenue stream. All that’s needed is the right amount of fines and “administrative fees” tacked on to make it worthwhile.

      On the other hand, nailing speeders in well-placed speed traps seems infinitely easier, therefore being the preferred activity of LEOs that don’t want to exert the energy of actually spotting bad drivers. Guess a radar gun can’t help them do that.

  • avatar

    Well…duh. We have know this for years.

    I believe that Ford will be sued in the future as they are billing that silly SYNC system as the “safer” alternative to holding a cell phone when driving. Which is one big fat lie.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    Meh. Here in The Capital of the Free World, hand-held cellphone use while driving is illegal. But my unscientific observation is that everyone does it, yeah including the police. That said, my wife recently was stopped for some sort of minor traffic offense, but she managed to “plead down” to using a hand-held cellphone, which is a cheaper no-points offense than whatever else the police had stopped her for.

    So, the law has some utility. ;-)

    I drive a manual and have yet to figure out how to do that in traffic and use a hand-held cell phone. So, I use a bluetooth headset and the voice dialing feature in the phone (even though it works only 75% of the time).

    Ultimately, I think no study can be designed that will definitively (i.e. with statistical evidence) answer the question about cellphone safety, beyond what common sense will tell you. Even the studies that purport to show that any kind of cellphone use is dangerous would seem to compare use with non-use and the driver being alone in the car. If the driver has company, then, obviously, any kind of conversation is going to be a distraction.

    Maybe cars should be outlawed, and people forced to ride motorcycles. That would probably cut down on hand held cellphone use. . .

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen idiots on bikes blathering away on handheld phones here. Stupid X2, since this means they were also riding without a helmet. In the case of the Harley riders, I can’t imagine how loud the phone would have to be to be heard over the obnoxious noise of the bike. There is a near 100% corrolation between Harley riding and helmetless riding. Yet the inverse is true of BMWs. Hmmmm.

      One of the nice things about Winter in Maine – no @#[email protected]#[email protected]#$ Harleys!

  • avatar

    An easy fix to all of this is to require a phone’s internal GPS to monitor the phone’s speed. Anything over 5mph instantly disables the phone’s keypad and cell capability. Done.

    This would have the added benefit of preventing all the shared conversations on trains, the bus, etc. Frankly, I think there should also be a sensor that disables the phone when it smells publicly enjoyed food, to kill the conversations of all the blow-hards who insist on talking on the phone in restaurants (brain surgeons all, I’m sure). But that’s just my $.02.

  • avatar
    jonny b

    I have never understood how people can drive and talk on the phone at the same time (never mind texting which blows me away). When I first got a mobile phone I tried to talk and drive but found it nearly impossible. So I used the speaker phone but it still felt inherently unsafe. I just knew deep down that I was moving very fast in something very heavy and should probably commit 100% of my attention to DRIVING. Talking can wait. But I seem to be in the minority. Am I just terribly uncoordinated (I’m bad at sports and even modern video games. I am good at Pac-Man)? Do I drive too fast? Do I enjoy driving too much? Am I too anti-social (it helps that I don’t actually LIKE to talk on the phone). What’s wrong with me?

  • avatar

    80% percent of all rear end collisions (the most frequent vehicle accident) are caused by driver inattention, following too closely, external distraction (talking on cell phones, shaving, applying makeup, fiddling with the radio or CD player, texting, etc.) and poor judgment. I doubt if we’ll ever stop the madness so I got one of these to protect my family.

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