When in Doubt, Ban It

By Gary Biller, NMA President

He sounds like a man with a strong urge to leave a lasting legacy on his way out of the door.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is planning to step down from that post at the end of the Obama Administration’s first term, recently called for a federal ban on all cell phone use while driving. He has been quoted as saying that the police should have “the opportunity to write tickets when people are foolishly thinking they can drive safely or use a cell phone and text and drive.”

Give the police opportunities to write more tickets? That “let’s teach them a lesson” attitude has never modified driver behavior long-term, or even near-term. Speed traps and red-light cameras keep cranking out tickets. Command-and-control enforcement measures are efficient at collecting money from motorists, but not at effecting beneficial change.

When confronted with the NMA position that all 50 states already have adequate distracted-driving laws in place making it unnecessary and dangerous to single out just one type of distracting behavior, LaHood doubled down. He expressed less concern about specific activities beyond cell phone usage that cause inattentive driving because “not everyone does [those other things].”

Secretary LaHood’s call for a cell phone ban is politically popular. It is also terribly misguided because such absolute restrictions don’t work. Don’t take my word for it. The insurance industry, usually diehard supporters of increased driver restrictions and penalties, is the surprising source of this revelation.

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, issued a study in late 2010 that showed texting bans to be ineffective. Researchers reviewed crash statistics from several months before and several months after texting bans were imposed in four states: California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington. Those data were compared to surrounding states that didn’t outlaw texting during the same time periods.

The title of the HLDI news release that announced the study said it all: “Texting bans don’t reduce crashes; effects are slight crash increases.“ This followed another HLDI report that found banning hand-held cell phone use while driving did not reduce vehicular accident rates either.

If government is to play a role reducing dangerous distracted driving, it should concentrate its efforts and resources on education, not redundant legislation or the isolating of specific activities behind the wheel. Fund the use of driving simulators in driver’s education classes. Let novice drivers experience the danger of distracted driving — in any of its forms — in a learning environment that doesn’t put them or others at risk.

That would be a legacy worth leaving.


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