Why Texting-While-Driving Bans Don’t Work

<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-234961p1.html">Rob Hyrons</a>/Shutterstock


Lost in the clamor for stricter distracted-driving laws, a study from April 2013 found discouraging patterns in the relationship between texting bans and traffic fatalities.

Drivers might dial back their texting when they hear about a ban, but after they succumb to the urge once or twice and get away with it, they determine it’s okay and keep doing it.

As one might expect, single occupant vehicle crashes dip noticeably when a state legislature enacts a texting and driving ban. But the change is always short-lived, according to this study, which examined data from every state except Alaska from 2007 through 2010. Within months, the accident rate typically returned to pre-ban levels.

The researchers, Rahi Abouk and Scott Adams of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, attribute this pattern to the “announcement effect,” when drivers adjust their behavior to compensate for a perceived law enforcement threat—only to return to old habits when enforcement appears ineffectual. In other words, drivers might dial back their texting when they hear about a ban, but after they succumb to the urge once or twice and get away with it, they determine it’s okay and keep doing it.

“It’s different than drunk driving,” Adams said. Identifying intoxicated drivers is relatively easy, “you can give somebody a breathalyzer, you can have checkpoints.” But with texting, “it’s really hard [for policemen] to know” if someone’s been texting.

No one denies the dangers of texting while driving. In fact, 95 percent of AAA survey (PDF) respondents said texting behind the wheel was a “very” serious threat to their personal safety. But 35 percent of the same respondent group admitted to having read a text or email while driving in the last 30 days. Because Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 send and receive an average of 88 texts per day, and American drivers average nearly 40 miles a day, it makes sense that the Department of Transportation estimates that at any given daylight moment, approximately 660,000 people are “using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices” while driving.

State governments have attempted to curb the formation of this lethal habit. Forty-six states have enacted some kind of texting ban, with penalties ranging from a $20 ticket to a $10,000 fine and a year in prison (hey, Alaska!). Unfortunately, enforcement has seen limited success, in part because of how difficult detection is. Likewise, actual cell phone related fatality statistics are vastly underreported for a number of reasons, experts say. And, unless a driver involved in a crash admits to it, investigators may have no reason to suspect cell phone use.

The most effective bans, Adams said, were those enacted earliest. In Washington, where legislators took action in 2007, “people actually took it seriously,” at least for a time. Yet the efficacy of that ban decreased with each successive year. Likely, Adams said, because people heard “reports that these things weren’t being enforced.” In those states slower to legislate, any dip in fatalities evened out within several months.

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate