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.

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:

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