A Michigan man pleaded guilty in May to texting while driving after he ran a stop sign, broadsided a car and killed one of its passengers. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In Washington, a teen who killed a bicyclist pleaded guilty to texting while driving and was sentenced to five years in jail.
One was charged with a moving violation. The other was charged under the state's vehicular homicide law.
That disparity underlines the nature of the battle against distracted driving: There's still no consensus on how to punish offenders, or even how much of a problem cell phone use actually is. Forty states still allow use of a handheld cell phone, and in 16 states, texting while driving isn't illegal. In some states, a ticket for a cell phone violation shows up on a driver's record and thus raises his insurance rates; in others, the insurer will never know.
Two new studies show that while the tide is turning, there is still a long way to go before distracted driving is a thing of the past.
Cell phones and texting
No one doubts that distracted driving is deadly, but there is little actual proof.
In 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 5,474 people died as a result of distracted driving, making distracted driving responsible for 16 percent of all fatalities due to car crashes.
But rapidly changing technology and the difficulty of conducting effective research make it hard to draw conclusions about the cause of distractions. Texting wasn't widespread until recently, and the advent of mobile Internet access offers the prospect of more distractions to come.
So far, little research directly links either cell phone use or texting to accident rates, and fatalities have plummeted even as the use of mobile devices has soared.
Amid so much uncertainty, a just-released Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report surveys all the science to date, to find out what researchers agree on:
- Distraction does affect driving. No one knows exactly how much. Researchers depend on police to note any possible distractions on their accident reports, but that's wildly inconsistent from city to city and state to state.
- Cell phone use does increase the risk of a crash. No one knows exactly how much. Researchers can place cameras and monitoring devices inside cars, they can stand on street corners and count phones against ears, or they can compare cell phone records against crash reports. Studies done in those manners have found that crash risk increases anywhere from 1.3 to four times.
- Texting is more dangerous than cell phone use. No one knows exactly how much. By comparing cell phone texting records with fatality databases, researchers at the University of North Texas concluded last year that 16,141 people had died from 2002 to 2007 as a result of accidents caused by texting behind the wheel.
- We're distracted while driving a lot -- as much as 50 percent of the time. A distraction can be anything from an argument with a passenger to a messy sandwich, but the big ones, it notes, are cell phone use and texting.
Two-thirds of drivers report using their cell phones while driving. The rates are even higher for younger drivers. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) survey found that 13 percent of drivers ages 18-24 texted while driving, while only 2 percent of those ages 30-59 texted.
Reducing distracted driving is difficult
The GHSA urges a complete ban on cell phone use and texting, but only for novice drivers.
It also suggests that states with limits on cell phone use enforce those laws, helping to supply data; that law enforcement officers consistently note distractions on accident reports; and that rumble strips, which alert drivers who drift out of their lanes, be added to the centerlines and edges of more roads.
Not surprisingly, the GHSA advises more research. But it also advises the states that haven't banned cell phone use not to do so until more information has been gathered.
Typically, as laws are put in place, handheld phone use drops but usage climbs back up as drivers revert back to old behaviors. While these bans reduce cell phone usage, the GHSA report finds no proof that cell phone and texting bans have reduced crash rates, or that they are easily enforced.
One answer on the enforcement side is the newly released study from NHTSA conducted in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y. In addition to dramatically increased enforcement, an advertising campaign made the public aware that police would be out in force. Handheld cell phone use dropped by 57 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse. Texting while driving dropped 72 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse.
The long-term effects are less clear, but NHTSA points to two of its successes: After decades-long campaigns, drunken driving is at an historic low and seatbelt use is at an all-time high.
Increasingly illegal, and illegal is expensive
In some states a ticket for texting or talking on a cell phone will result in points on your license, while in others it doesn't. The differences in state laws have car insurance consequences as well.
In states where distracted driving is a civil offense, it's not shown on driving records and thus not reported to insurance companies.
Yet insurers are happy to assess a premium increase if state law allows. According to Elizabeth B. Stelzer of Nationwide Insurance, "Any moving violation increases the risk that a driver will be involved in future claims. Therefore Nationwide works with local governments to apply premium increases for customers with distracted driving citations once laws are passed and enforcement begins."
Just like state laws, insurance companies rate distracted driving citations differently. Check with your insurer's policies.