Banning Hand-held Cell Phone Use May Not Reduce Accidents

Jun 25, 2015

Credit Craig Murphy via Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/5Syj9C

 As New Hampshire gets set to enact a ban on handheld cellphone use while driving, there is some evidence that such bans in other states have had little effect on accident rates.

In a 2014 study, researcher Dan Kaffine and others at the University of Colorado Boulder found no evidence that a California ban on using handheld cellphones while driving actually decreased the number of traffic accidents in that state.

Dan Kaffine joined Morning Edition to talk about the issue.

You found no evidence that a California ban on using handheld cellphones while driving decreased the number of traffic accidents in that state in the first six months following the ban. First off, do we know if people were actually complying with the law?

Our study didn’t look at the compliance angle directly, but there are studies in the literature that do suggest that states that have passed these sorts of handheld bans do in fact see a reduction in cellphone use. But the compliance question is always an important one.

The data in this research looked at accidents in the six months prior to the ban and then six months after. Could it be that just more time is needed for people to really change their habits before we do see a reduction in accidents?

Yeah, that’s certainly possible. We set out with a very clear research question–the idea being that on June 30, 2008 people were free to use their handheld cellphones. On July 1, it was against the law to use their handheld cellphones, so let’s take a look and see if there were any changes in accidents in that relatively short time window. Certainly over time, there may be changes in attitudes and how people view distracted driving in general. I think that’s an open question right now.

Has there been some follow-up research? Obviously, that ban in California has been in effect now for many years.

Not in California as far as I know. There have been other studies in some of these other states that have banned handheld cellphone use. I think the surprising thing from that literature is that the evidence there is pretty mixed. There are a few studies, such as mine, that found no evidence of a reduction in accidents. And there are a few other studies that have found some evidence that accidents have fallen after these bans are implemented.

The kind of ban that’s going into effect July 1st here in New Hampshire is for handheld devices only. It doesn’t affect the hands-free devices such as phones or navigation systems that would be integrated via Bluetooth. But research has shown that using those is just as distracting. Do your numbers bear that out?

That was certainly one of the angles we thought of in terms of explaining why we don’t see a decline in accidents. If we know that some people are complying based on these other studies, certainly we should see something–we expected to see something in terms of reduction in accidents. The fact that we didn’t see anything–one explanation of that is people are complying with the handheld ban by switching over to using their hands-free. If the hands-free is just as distracting, then you’re not going to see any net reduction in accidents.

Is there any indication why a ban, at least according to this research, isn’t working? What can be done that maybe would have a positive effect?

That is the million dollar question. Given this mixed evidence in the literature right now, I think it’s a little challenging to come up with clear policy suggestions beyond recognizing that distracted driving in general is bad. We all have the same hope that we can reduce accidents somehow. We’d all like policies that would get people to focus on the road. But how exactly one goes about doing that is still tricky.