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Two myths about the driving-text ban

Posted by Rob Anderson  September 30, 2010 09:01 AM

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texting.jpgThere are two myths circulating about the statewide ban on text messaging while driving that goes into effect today. One is that the new law won't decrease texting-related crashes on our roads, and may even increase them. The other is that the ban is unenforceable, and therefore pointless. Neither of these arguments is true — but one, if believed, has the potential to make the law ineffective. Which one? Well, read on.

Let's start with myth one: Many news reports have claimed — and some well-read bloggers have repeated — that driving-text bans don't decrease the number of texting related crashes on our roads, and, that in some states, such bans have even increased them. Here's the problem. That argument is lifted — uncritically — from a pretty unconvincing study released by the Highway Loss and Data Institute, a group of insurers that has long opposed driving-text bans. If you ignore the media and actually take a look at the report, it's easy to see where the group's bias has clouded its judgment.

The HLDI study compares collision claims in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington, four of the first states to implement bans. Here are the report's statistical findings, which I have no reason to question: In these states, the number of crashes either remained consistent or slightly increased after texting bans had been put in place. At first glance, these stats are pretty surprising. The obvious reaction is to ask, "Why?"

This is where the HLDI falters. The report suggests that the bans have somehow caused the crashes. HLDI President Adrian Lund goes so far as to say that the findings are "an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws." Lund and the HLDI's cause-and-effect argument is pretty clear: Pass texting bans and you increase risk for your state's drivers.

There are two major flaws in this theory. First is the obvious one: The HLDI is making this cause-and-effect claim with absolutely no evidence to support it — and a certain agenda to promote. Second, the HLDI's conclusion doesn't take into account that texting — and therefore texting while driving — dramatically increased over the course of its study. The International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry reports that in June 2005, 194 million people subscribed to a wireless phone service; in December 2009, 286 million did. The number of texts increased by 60 percent in one year alone. There were 1 trillion messages in 2008; in 2009 there were 1.6 trillion. With that in mind, the reason why crashes have increased becomes fairly obvious: There are so many more people texting while driving today than there were five years ago. So you'd expect the number of texting-related crashes to skyrocket.

The HDLI's study actually proves the opposite of what the group says it does: The fact that crashes have either stayed the same or slightly increased in states that have bans in place suggests that the laws might actually work. As James Ledbetter has pointed out over at Slate, "if the states hadn't passed their texting bans, the number of text-related crashes might well have been higher."

With that established, let's move onto myth number two: Texting laws are unenforceable. Admittedly, this was the reaction I had when I first heard about the bans. How can a police officer see if I am texting? How will he or she know if I am texting or simply changing the music on my iPod? What if I'm looking up directions on my GPS device? Those are all good questions, but it turns out the Department of Transportation had them, too. That's part of the reason why the department launched pilot programs in Hartford, CT, and Syracuse, NY, to test whether the bans are enforceable — and therefore effective.

After six months of enforcement, the department observed texting while driving plummet 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse. These findings suggest — quite convincingly, I might add — that when carried out properly, bans can work.

But the key phrase here is "when carried out properly." The Hartford and Syracuse trial runs had three components. First, anti-texting laws had to be on the books. Second, the police departments there had to aggressively enforce those laws. And third, the effort was accompanied by a large-scale public awareness campaign.

So there's a moral to the story here for Massachusetts. The law that goes into effect today won't necessarily make our roads safer. The law won't work just because it exists. It can, but it has to be coupled with innovative and sustained efforts by police departments across the state to enforce the laws and public service announcements. If that happens, bans on texting while driving may mimic similar campaigns against drunk driving and seat belt use. Those efforts were once derided as ineffectual, too. But police officers found ways to enforce those laws, and the public eventually came to do most of the policing itself.

If Massachusetts follows in the footsteps of Hartford and Syracuse, we may see texting-related crashes decline. If not, these myths might end up looking closer to reality than they should.

One side note: I have a call into the Syracuse police department to find out what techniques the police officers there used to catch texting drivers. If you want to read about how those successful efforts worked, check The Angle for updates.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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