(Getty Images)

    by: David Sedgwick, AOL Autos

    You’ve seen them on the roads, drifting from lane to lane, running red lights, making left-hand turns while ignoring oncoming traffic.

    I’m referring, of course, to motorists using cell phones – the 21st century version of drunk driving.

    But this seemingly obvious truism – motorists who use cell phones are more likely to cause traffic accidents – is proving surprisingly difficult to demonstrate on a statistical basis.

    According to a study released today by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, bans on handheld cell phones in New York, Connecticut, California and the District of Columbia had no impact on accident rates.

    In those locales, the researchers compared accident data over two-year periods before and after the bans took effect. Then they compared accident rates in neighboring states that didn’t have bans.

    The researchers discovered that accident rates in California, Connecticut and Washington D.C. went down slightly, but that accidents in states with no bans declined just as much.

    New York’s accident rate decreased a bit more than in nearby states, but that trend actually began before the state ban took effect.

    “We can’t see any change in the crash statistics when the handheld ban takes effect,” concludes Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute.

    At this point, attentive readers are raising their hands:

    -- How can you be sure that motorists in those locales actually stopped using their cell phones?
    -- Does this mean that the knuckle-heads who text-message while they drive are not a danger to everyone around them?
    -- Are hands-free cell phones safer than handheld phones?
    -- Should states ban handheld cell phones even if accident rates don’t decline?

    Good questions. Here are some answers

    Did motorists in those states actually stop using their cell phones?

    Before and after the states banned handheld phones, researchers went out on the road and observed motorists who were using cell phones.

    After New York’s ban took effect in 2001, drivers’ usage of handheld phones immediately declined 47%. The usage rate fell 41% in Washington D.C. and 76% in Connecticut. The institute did not have data on cell phone trends in California, which approved its ban in 2008.

    Do you use a hands-free device for talking on the phone while driving?

    The usage rates observed in these locales apply to handheld phones, not hands’ free units. But the researchers assumed that motorists in those states switched to hands-free devices over a period of months, rather than weeks.

    Some previous research had concluded that cell phone users – whether on handheld or hands-free devices – are four times more likely to have accidents than non-users.

    If that’s true, you would expect at least a temporary decline in the accident rate if driver distraction is as big a problem as safety advocates claim.

    But the Insurance Institute couldn’t detect even a temporary decline in accidents, a chagrined Lund reports.

    “Whatever the reason, the key finding is that crashes aren’t going down where hand-held phone use has been banned,” he says in today’s press release. “This finding doesn’t augur well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving.”

    Which brings us to our second question

    Does this mean that the knuckleheads who text-message while they drive are not a danger to everyone around them?

    Actually, there is some good research data that shows texting while driving is every bit as stupid as you think it is.

    Last year, Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute released findings of a study in which cameras and sensors were installed for several months in the trucks and cars of motorists who used them in the normal course of activities.

    The researchers concluded that those who held conversations on handheld phones had a modest increase in accident risk. But the crash rate went up significantly for those who dialed a handheld phone.

    And the highest accident rate of all occurred for those who texted while driving. In fact, truck drivers who texted were 23 times more likely to have an accident than those who didn’t. The researchers found that texters kept their eyes off the road road as much as 4.6 seconds over a six-second interval.

    Does that mean hands-free cell phones are safer than handheld phones?

    The answer seems to be yes.

    According to the Virginia Tech study, the accident rate shoots up when you take your eyes off the road for any reason. Whether you are dialing your phone, applying makeup, reading a map or texting, you are more likely to have an accident if you don’t keep an eye on traffic.

    But accident risks don’t necessarily increase due merely to driver distraction, which occurs when your girlfriend calls you up and announces that she’s dumping you.

    Louis Tijerina, a senior technical specialist at Ford Motor Co., says the Virginia Tech study supports Ford’s own simulator studies of driver behavior at their technical center in Dearborn, Mich.

    “Visual distraction – not cognitive distraction – is the main factor” in accidents, says Tijerina, trying manfully to keep an I-told-you-so tone out of his voice.

    Ford used these findings when it designed its voice-activated Sync infotainment system. Sync users can employ voice commands to activate their cell phones, navigators or radio, so they don’t have to fumble with knobs and controls.

    And if motorists insist upon texting, at least they can use voice commands and keep their eyes on the road.

    With that in mind, Ford – and just about everyone else in the auto industry – has endorsed a bill by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, to ban motorists from texting with handheld devices.

    Likewise, there is wide support for the U.S. Transportation Department’s ban this week on texting by commercial truck and bus drivers. Violators are subject to fines up to $2,750. The Transportation Department’s new ban follows a similar rule by the Obama administration forbidding three million federal employees from texting while driving.

    Should states ban handheld cell phones even if accident rates don’t decline?

    This may be the toughest question of all. The states of California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington have banned motorist use of handheld cell phones, and 19 states ban text messaging.

    The folks at Ford wouldn’t especially mind if these bans spread nationwide, since motorists would be encouraged to switch to hands-free systems like Sync.

    Likewise, the Insurance Institute’s recent study – which does not compare the relative hazards of texting vs. cell phone conversations – does not end all debate. Lund tells me that his researchers are going to revisit previous studies to see if they can make sense of the data.

    Meanwhile, the researchers at Virginia Tech recommend a ban on all cell phone use for newly licensed teenage drivers. Their studies indicate that teens are four times more likely to have a crash or near-crash than adult drivers.

    In a summary posted on Virginia Tech’s Website, they conclude: “Our research has shown that teens tend to engage in cell phone tasks much more frequently – and in much more risky situations – than adults.”

    Meanwhile, newly formed citizen groups like FocusDriven are going to ratchet up the pressure on lawmakers to ban motorist use of handheld phones. If you have not yet heard of FocusDriven, you will soon enough.

    Launched in January with the U.S. Transportation Department’s blessing, the group patterns itself after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has proven to be an effective lobby group. In states that are considering bans, FocusDriven will publicize local examples of fatal accidents caused by cell phone users.

    Jennifer Smith, the president and co-founder of FocusDriven, lost her mother in a fatal accident caused by an inattentive motorist using a cell phone. “We will put a human face on the statistics,” Smith tells me. “People have to see that real people are hurting.”

    But does it make sense to ban motorists’ use of handheld phones? If the Virginia Tech study is accurate, the answer appears to be yes. If accidents are caused when people take their eyes off the road, then we should minimize the distractions.

    Read More:

    - U.S. Gov Bans Texting For Truckers and Bus Drivers
    - Safest Cars For 2010
    - Car Safety

    Quick Shopping Tools:

    Research New Cars

    Cars for Sale in Your Area

    Get Repair Estimates

    1 - 20 of 45 Comments
    ctlr505 Sep 24, 2010 4:33 PM
    "Hey!!! Stupid, your driving a car, not a phonebooth." If cops enforced the law it would be a different thing. They're too lazy to inforce such a menial law. I see cops driving and talking on cell phones all the time. Anyone driving and talking on the phone should be arrested for assault with a deadly weapon.
    Report This
    babybrat2652 Jan 30, 2010 8:00 PM
    kllrlf3505, we aren't saying that there aren't more causes for accidents. We aren't SOLELY blaming cell phones, because there were obviously vehicular accidents prior to the inventions of cell phones. The fact of the matter is, it's a huge problem, especially among the youth these days. Countless times I watch friends messing with their phones, ipods, and even just their typical radios and it scares the crap out of me because I see how they are much more focused on technology than they are on what is going on around them. There have also been other studies done where they tested a teenager's reaction time with "no" distractions and reaction time when using a cell phone. The results showed that their reaction time was slowed to about the reaction time of a typical 60-year-old. SO what's the reaction time of a 40 or 50-year-old on a cell phone? The fact of the matter is, it can't take sole responsibility for the nation's accidents, but it has played a part. And as for anyone who sets their phone on their lap to use speaker phone - NOT smart. Say you have to hit the brakes, and your phone slides. Then there is a GREAT chance you'll reach down to grab it, which is probably even worse than texting and driving.. or with the minimizing size of cell phones these days, I'm sure it could easily get wedged in your brake or gas pedal. Just a thought, nice try though.
    Report This
    csi8299 Jan 30, 2010 6:02 AM
    Other than for business reasons, anyone who needs to make or take more than a few phone calls a day is in serious need of therapy. There is a whole world out there, hang up and go live in it.
    Report This
    fire350669 Jan 30, 2010 5:48 AM
    The real story is if you can't talk on a cell phone and drive you should not be driving in the first place. Cell phone are only the excuse the government can use. All your doing is talking to someone. You have a friend in the car and talk to them so what is the porblem. Texting is another issue or is it. Your lost and you are looking at a map or reading instruction while your driving. Lighting your smoke, taking a sip of your coffee, look through your CD collection to find the one you want. What makes this so different then talking on your cell phone nothing. Then of course they is your little sweet puppy sitting on your lap. Don't blame cell phone if you can't drive. you could not drive before them and your can't drive without them
    Report This
    mikerox31 Jan 30, 2010 4:59 AM
    Well as much fun as your all having talking about cell phones let me just voice my opinion. I think the ban on cell phones is just great. I use a nerdy ear piece to talk on the phone and if any of you use one then you know what I am talking about. I press the stupid little button and the phone asks me to say a command, I tell it to call someone and it repeats 3 totally different people. I tell it yet again to call someone and now it wants to text someone. I then reach down and press the buttons on the phone and end up dialing it by hand because it is so irritating talking to the stupid thing. I find that by using that stupid head set I get more distracted then when I was grabbing the phone and dialing while driving. I never look at the phone to dial and now find that I have to check it more to make sure the stupid thing is doing what I want. To me this is less safe then what I was doing before. Between work and home I spend alot of time on the phone, have tried hands free speaker phone adapters and the bluetooth. Billy Ray, your hands free thing is a pile of crap. I have found grabbing the phone and dialing is safer then anything else. Thats my opinion.
    Report This
    pupmobile Jan 30, 2010 4:33 AM
    I live in Florida and there is not a day that I am driving where I don't see someone do something very stupid and dangerous and almost cause an accident. If it were not for the people that are not texting and not dialing and paying close attention to what is going on there would be a whole lot more accidents than there are. When you are dialing or texting you are ************ the road. If you people were doing the right thing, you wouldn't care if they are trying to make it safer for everyone. You will all wake up when you lose someone you love because of just plain careless idiots that have no regard to anyones safety. I have a very good friend that lost two of her children because a woman was texting . That is tragic people. Wake up and smell the roses before it is to late and affects you or your family. People pay with their lives because many of you choose to be careless.
    Report This
    gr8bsn Jan 30, 2010 3:43 AM
    I also do have to point out the irony here: Cell phones were originally developed for use in cars, and were dealer installed options. They were typically called "car-phones."
    Report This
    gr8bsn Jan 30, 2010 3:40 AM
    Whatever... this cell phone hype is made up of fabricated statistics so that the media and government officials can create an artificial "bogeyman." With the bogeyman in place, self righteous activists, media pundits, and politicians have "feel good crusades" they can go on to appear relevant, important, and even heroic to the masses. Is talking on cell phones dangerous? In some cases yes, but the bigger picture of dangerous driving is being ignored. The laws aren't being enforced because honestly, a cop is not going to pull a vehicle over that is in its lane, maneuvering safely, and driving at a prudent speed. As for people like grumpyj02 who think it's their God-given right to be psycho vigilantes on the road: You should have your license revoked for ten years, your car impounded and crushed, and ten years in prison. Here's a better idea, act like an adult and be better than the other person. If people started minding their own business and concentrating on the task at hand, the world would be a better place,
    Report This
    grumpyj02 Jan 30, 2010 3:29 AM
    Hello, I usually don't comment on online articles, but, as a professional driver that is on the road over 100,000 miles a year, I feel I must!!!!!! The only reason that the ban seems to have little or no effect in the accident rate is that the general public is well aware that, as is with most traffic laws, the local and state police will not enforce it. I have seen, on many occasions, local and state laws being violated right in the presence of a law offical with no consequence. The public knows that this will just be treated as most other traffic laws, and not be enforced by officals as it is just a waste of their time, in their eyes I have, on MANY occasions, been subjected to drivers distracted with cell phones and texting while driving, and have nearly been in countless accidents due to it. I once had a woman cut me off 5 times and nearly cause an accident with me in a 3 miles stretch of road to the point that I forced her to stop and screamed at her to get off the phone. She refused. If the police would enforce the law(s), and it came with heavy fines that were required to be paid instead of a slap on the wrist or no consquenses at all, it would not take long for the public to realise that this would be a serious matter and act accordingly. Maybe, when one of their family members or loved ones is effected, then the public would think twice about it. Thank you, John
    Report This
    rozenkov Jan 30, 2010 2:50 AM
    The article is obviously stupid and wrong and is fabricated on request of the indusrty, but the comments are quite good and most of them are very wise. Shame on AOL.
    Report This
    kllrlf3505 Jan 30, 2010 2:29 AM
    yea and so let onlt blame cell phones for accidents lets not blame speeders lets not blame people who switch lanes without signaling lets not blame people who thinks because they on the road they have right away and in nyc u cant even try to test bad driving because of cell phones cause if anyone lives there will say no one in nyc knows how to drive taxis do what they want truck drivers do what they want bus drivers do what they want cops do nothing to stop them blaming cell phones is wrong i hate people who use them while driving but they are not the only ones to blame...we cant just drive everyday get into accident and say its ur fault u own a cell phone there are stupid drivers every where drive down trenton new jersey find em hamilton newjersey find em titusville fl ull find em kissimmee fl ull find em manhattan nyc ull find em stop blaming one thing and blame everything i get distracted drivin by a flock of birds flying over are we gonna ban birds from flying to now?????grow up take blame........and sorry guy cant compare military base to outside world there officers actually care about there job..... have a great day
    Report This
    kregdkelley Jan 30, 2010 2:16 AM
    A recent study showed writing in your journal while driving leads to less accidents. TALKING ON YOUR CELL PHONE AVOIDS ACCIDENTS? I just cancelled my AOL subscription as it is clear complete idiots run the show.
    Report This
    gettinplooked Jan 30, 2010 2:05 AM
    "the 21st century version of drunk driving." No way! I do both all the time; and driving drunk is mad hard until you get good at it. No, using a cell while driving is no more likely to cause an accident than a burrito in the hands of fat person. Seriously, who do you think is more distracted? A typical celly user or a fat guy making eyes at his ooey gooey burrito while juggling a 64oz. diet soda? Food for thought. Cheers Mates. See you on the road.
    Report This
    fmbogard Jan 30, 2010 1:54 AM
    This study sponsored by Verison, AT& T, IPHONE, Cingular,T mobile, Tracfone, trauma surgeons, emergency room workers, ambulance drivers, paramedics, property liability lawyers, litigation lawyers, Automobile Manufacturers, and the collision repair industry. Most people don't pay enough attention while driving, even without distractions. I personally have made eye contact with people talking on the phone at least once a month, and still have them turn in front of me when I have the right of way, driving straight across an intersection. I have, at least three times, slammed on the brakes, and turned to avoid an inevitable collision, good thing one of us wasn't distracted. Just so you know, I do own and use a cell phone, but dont make or recieve calls, without pulling over out of traffic. The people that think they are the best multitaskers, are usually the worst. The consequences of being distracted while driving far, far, far, outwiegh the convenience of talking or texting while driving. And, unfortunately, inocent people are very often the victims of distracted drivers. Driving is a very important job, and you have no right to endanger other people by not devoting your full attention to doing it safely.
    Report This
    soccersmotis Jan 30, 2010 1:35 AM
    If you can't keep your eyes on the road while talking on a phone then you have a serious problem. Takes me all of a second to answer my phone and put it up to my ear and resume driving. Most new phones have a feature called Voice Commands which with the push of a button usually located somewhere on the outside of the phone allows you to just talk into the phone and dial or call a person. It's not the cell phones causing the problems, it's the idiots behind the wheel who should have never been given a license in the first place. These are the same people you see in the ditch when there's been less than 1/10th of an inch of snow on the ground. If my rear wheel drive sports car can drive through whiteout conditions then you 4 wheel drive trucks should have no problem.
    Report This
    lewisnchris Jan 30, 2010 1:29 AM
    I see people ALL the time gabbing away on their cell phones while driving. I have found a pretty good way of teaching them a lesson now. I just ram into their car with mine. It seems to work great and I think I make their day. If for some reason they have a fit about it I simply toss a bit of gasoline on their car and light it on fire. As I peel out and leave the scene I yell "maybe you'll learn to use your headpiece now idiot." I think it may have an impact
    Report This
    lgnd6 Jan 30, 2010 1:12 AM
    Also, take a look at military bases. Cell phone usage while driving is prohibited, speed limits are enforced, and you have to come to complete stops at signs! No wonder why there are rarely wrecks on bases.
    Report This
    lgnd6 Jan 30, 2010 1:10 AM
    Most people can't even pay enough attention to drive safely with no distractions, let alone while texting. I feel that everytime that you text while driving and don't get in a wreck then you were lucky! I talk on the cell phone quite a bit while driving but I always turn it on speaker phone and put it in my lap (I can't afford bluetooth!)...more importantly however, I realize that driving takes precedence over my coversation. Many times, when I see a sketchy situation, I tell the person to hold their thoughts for a minute until I get through it. Just don't be an idiot and be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to what you are doing and you will be fine. I am happy to say that I have never even been close to having a wreck in the 7 years I have been driving. Because not only do I pay attention to what I am doing, I also predict what dumb things that guy next to me might do, as he changes into my lane not caring to use a blinker as it would make him have to switch his phone to the other hand.
    Report This
    dls031568 Jan 30, 2010 1:00 AM
    driving and cell phones are not good a good combination....all your attention needs to be on whats going on around you, behind you and in front of you.....if you talk on your cell while driving your a idiot and DESERVE to wrap your ignorant, inconsiderate ass around the nearest telephone pole.... HANG UP THE DAMN CELL PHONE....YOUR DRIVING A CAR NOT A PHONE BOOTH!!!!
    Report This
    blkfva23452 Jan 30, 2010 1:00 AM
    oh yeah and ban all other phones that have buttons
    Report This
    1 - 20 of 45 Comments
    Leave A Comment?
    Please keep your comments relevant to the Study Shows Banning Cell Phones In Cars Doesn't Work article.
    The seemingly obvious truism motorists who use cell phones are more likely to cause accidents is proving surprisingly difficult to demonstrate on a statistical basis.


    Your Comment:
    Send Report Cancel