More sweeping cellphone laws reduce crash rates

Traffic Safety Pulse News

(IIHS) It’s common knowledge that texting while driving is illegal in most places. But what about tapping the screen of your cellphone to accept a faster route suggested by Google Maps? What if your phone is mounted on the dashboard? What if you’re stopped at a red light? Is tapping the screen of your phone different from tapping your car’s touch-screen infotainment center? Drivers have varied interpretations of what is acceptable — and so do state laws and the police who enforce them.

“Technology is moving much faster than the laws,” says Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “One solution may be to make them broader, rather than trying to come up with an exhaustive list of banned behaviors.”

Persons hand shown scrolling through social media on cell phone behind a steering wheel

Cell phones present one of the thorniest problems. Once simple communication devices, they’re now cameras, GPS navigators, web browsers, game consoles, diet trackers, payment portals, stock-trading platforms, social media spaces and more. In general, states have taken two approaches to deal with the expanded potential for distracted driving, either attempting to enumerate all the forbidden operations or drafting broad prohibitions against holding or using a phone or similar electronic device while in the driver seat on a public road.

In a recent paper, IIHS researchers examined crash rates in three states that adopted the latter strategy to determine if such broad laws are having the intended effect. The answer? “As my daughter might put it,” says Reagan, the lead author, “it’s complicated.”

Rather than look specifically at crashes attributed to distracted driving, which tends to be underreported in police records, Reagan and his colleagues examined the laws’ effect on police-reported rear-end crashes. Rear-end crashes were chosen because past research has shown that cellphone use is associated with a much larger increase in the odds of those crashes than any other type. To read more about cell phone laws, click here.