We have heard a steady drumbeat of calls over the past decade for tougher traffic laws to discourage drivers from texting or talking on cell phones behind the wheel. Common sense suggests that stiffer penalties and better knowledge about distracted driving hazards will lead to fewer car accidents.
A recent study from the New England University Transportation Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that this strategy might miss the mark. The study reviewed driving behaviors of 108 Boston-area citizens, and found that those who admit to frequent calling while driving are also more likely to engage in other driving risks.
Frequent callers change lanes more frequently, drive at faster speeds, are more likely to slam on the brakes and tend to rapidly accelerate. All of these behaviors can increase a driver’s chance of getting in a car or truck accident that causes serious personal injuries or wrongful death.
The drivers were not allowed to use phones during the road test, but frequency of phone use by individual drivers was determined in a questionnaire administered prior to a 40-minute test drive on Boston highways. All of the participants got behind the wheel of the same Volvo SUV, which was equipped with eye trackers and heart-rate monitors as well as a variety of on-board vehicle performance sensors and video cameras.
The researchers concluded that strict cell phone bans may not have the expected effect on reducing car accident rates. This supports related studies showing that cell phone bans reduce phone and texting use behind the wheel but do not seem to have a pronounced effect on accident rates.
Drivers who have reckless and negligent tendencies pose dangers to other motorists and passengers. Regardless of whether cell phone bans work, clear proof of distracted driving that leads to injury or death is a vital step in holding irresponsible drivers accountable for the harm they cause.
Source: The Boston Globe, “Cellphones’ role in crashes doubted,” Hiawatha Bray, Aug. 27, 2012