Don’t Write Off Texting-While-Driving Bans

A mischievous little study was released yesterday , in which the Highway Loss Data Institute found that states that banned sending text messages while driving don’t see a reduction in text-related accidents. “In fact,” says the HLDI, “such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes.” This is based on a review of collision claims in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington before and after those states passed texting bans.

It’s surprising how uncritically this study has been received , especially since the HLDI is a consortium of insurers, who’ve long opposed driving-text bans. I cheered a little when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the study “completely misleading” and cited some DoT pilot programs that show the opposite. And a few news stories pointed out that there’s a big difference between passing a law and actually enforcing it.

But missing entirely is the fact that the baseline has changed dramatically! Think of it this way: Fifteen years ago, precisely zero car accidents were caused by texting, because no one in America was sending texts, inside a car or outside. Today, the volume of text messages is growing massively. Indeed, if you get all the way to the bottom of the HLDI release, you’ll find this nugget: “Texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too. It went up by about 60 percent in 1 year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009. ”

This is crucial. If text messaging is rising 60 percent every year, it stands to reason that the number of people texting and driving is also going up by some significant factor. And so if the states hadn’t passed their texting bans, the number of text-related crashes might well have been higher. It’s also important to keep in mind that any statistical studies on this subject have major limitations at the data-collection level. As this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report puts it, “Police accident reports vary across jurisdictions, thus creating potential inconsistencies in reporting. Many variables on the police crash report are concrete across the jurisdictions, but distraction is not one of those variables.”