Study: Distractions, not phones, cause car crashes

Laws banning the use of handheld cell phones or texting while driving may not decrease crashes, a study finds. Addressing distracted drivers may be a better solution.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

A new study suggests that laws banning talking on or sending text messages with cell phones while driving may not significantly decrease the risk of traffic accidents. Instead, experts suggest dealing with the problem of distracted drivers in general.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the auto insurance industry, compared monthly collision claims in four states that have banned handheld cell phone use before and after the bans took effect.

Research for the study, published Friday, was collected in New York, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and California. Data was also collected and evaluated from nearby states that do not have such bans, for the sake of comparison. The Highway Loss Data Institute's research indicates that car collision rates didn't change after bans went into effect--and they didn't change for nearby states without such bans, either.

That said, the laws banning handheld phone usage have been effective in getting people to use hands-free devices for driving, the study suggests. But there is no indication that hands-free devices have reduced the number of car accidents that occur.

"Hands-free device are no less risky than using a handheld phone," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which sponsored the study. "And this indicates that the issue is really about the distracted driver. It's much bigger than drivers using cell phones."

In other words, it's the distraction--and not a cell phone, per se--that causes accidents. Tuning the radio, selecting a song on an iPod, programming a GPS navigation system, eating french fries, digging in a purse for change while approaching a toll booth on the Garden State Parkway, or turning around to scream at the kids--all done while behind the wheel of a car--are things that distract drivers and could potentially cause collisions.

"People have been driving distracted since cars were invented," Rader said. "Focusing on cell phones isn't the same as focusing on distracted driving. Distraction is what has always caused car crashes, and cell phones don't appear to be adding to that."

Indeed, Rader said the study also indicates that even though cell phone usage nationally has exploded over the past several years, and more than 89 percent of the U.S. population owns a cell phone, there has been no uptick nationally in the number of car accidents.

The study comes at a time when the federal government is considering bans on the use of cell phones by drivers. Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced rules that forbid commercial truck and bus drivers from texting while driving.

Currently, six states, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, prohibit all drivers from talking on handheld cell phones while driving. And 19 states and the District of Columbia and Guam now ban text messaging for all drivers.

Even with support for bans on cell phones growing, other distractions keep getting added to cars. In fact, several car manufacturers, including Ford, are showing off cars that include all kinds Internet-connected devices and gadgets, including displays for streaming TV and music from Internet radio sites, Google search capabilities, and Wi-Fi to connect laptops and other devices to the Net.

But Rader said targeting specific technologies is not the answer to combating this problem. In fact, he believes that technology can actually help solve the distracted-driver problem, even as new navigation and connected-entertainment options are added to vehicles.

For example, luxury car manufacturers such as Toyota's Lexus brand, BMW, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz have all begun adding collision detection technology to some models.

The Lexus system monitors the rear of the vehicle and warns drivers if the car behind them is about to rear-end them by flashing the car's hazard lights. It will also automatically move the headrest forward to protect the driver's neck, reducing the likelihood of whiplash.

Mercedes-Benz has demonstrated a system that recognizes stoplights and stop signs, pedestrians, cyclists, and other road hazards. It also interprets their distance and course. And it actually alters the car's speed so that drivers don't run through an intersection or collide with an object.

BMW has added night vision cameras to detect obstacles. If someone is on the road, a warning triangle flashes on the dashboard to alert drivers.

The Volvo XC60 uses a laser-based system called City Safety that monitors the roadway in front of the vehicle. If it detects that the XC60 is closing on a car, and the driver isn't making an effort to avoid a collision, it automatically brakes in an attempt to avoid a crash.

"This is not pie-in-the sky stuff," Rader said. "We aren't saying that talking on a cell phone or texting while driving is safe, but what we are saying is that there may be more effective approaches than simply passing laws that ban the use of cell phones to reduce crashes."