Distracted driving remains a huge problem in America, despite various cell phone laws banning texting and talking while driving. In fact, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood convened a national summit on the issue in late September, the second such event in as many years. But thus far, it remains a problem without a consistent, reliable solution, according to two recent reports.

Indeed, a report issued on Sept. 28 by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that that laws banning texting while driving did not result in fewer car crashes. HLDI is part of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Further, the HLDI reported that, after the bans went into effect, there was actually a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes. The finding was based on the number of such claims filed in four states (California, Minnesota, Washington and Louisiana) before and after their texting bans -- compared with patterns of claims in nearby states.

Similar findings were recently reported in a study conducted by the AAA of Southern California.

Legislation Ineffective

The fact that crashes actually increased slightly after texting bans went into effect prompted Adrian Lund, president of IIHS, to observe that “there is no way to know if the primary cause of distracted driving is texting and talking on cell phones. So, if the bans are not reducing crashes, then we probably shouldn’t just be focusing on texting and cell phones, because the problem seems to be bigger than that.

“We had distracted driving before there were cell phones,” notes Lund, pointing to long-standing careless and even reckless driving habits like shaving, eating, applying eye make-up and fiddling with stereos while driving.

Lund also theorizes that, in some cases, the texting ban may have actually led to an increase in crashes. “If a ban is in place and a driver is texting and sees a police car, he may drop the phone into his lap to hide it, which takes his eyes off the road even more than if he was holding it up and texting,” says Lund.

Enforcement of the ban also probably has not been vigorous or visible enough, says Lund, but he doesn’t blame the police for that. “In California, thousands of tickets have been written to drivers for using hand-held cell phones while driving, but there have been far fewer tickets handed out for texting, because it is harder to detect.”

Plus, devoting manpower to specifically enforcing the texting-while-driving ban is an expensive proposition for law enforcement agencies right now, considering that so many cities, counties and states have slashed budgets as a result of the recession.

Stepping Up Enforcement

However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has initiated two “demonstration programs,” in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York, to test whether or not “high visibility enforcement” could reduce texting and the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Under the program, the cities are specifically dedicating officers to enforcing the bans, and also conducting media campaigns to publicize that ramped-up enforcement.

The program is being conducted in four “waves,” the first two of which were between March and August. The third wave is happening now. The fourth wave will be conducted in early 2011. During the first two waves, the use of hand-held cell-phone use while driving dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse, while texting while driving dropped 68 percent in Harvard and 42 percent in Syracuse, according to a NHTSA report.

“The programs were very successful,” noted Lund. “Of course, that costs money, so the question is, ‘How do we get all of the cities to implement that level of enforcement with so many municipalities being strapped for cash?’”

In the meantime, Lund points to the increased development of onboard technologies that he hopes will cut down on the number of crashes that result from distracted driving – “like the crash-avoidance systems, lane-departure warnings and blind-spot warning systems that are becoming more and more commonplace in current vehicles.”

There are also carmakers who have built hands-free cell-phone applications into their vehicles, like the Sync system in various Ford vehicles.

More Technology

ZoomSafer, a Virginia-based provider of smart-phone software has developed another technological solution to clamp down on texting. Its software can be used to lock down the keypads and screens of smart pones, and suppress all “alerts” emitting from the phones, eliminating the temptation to text or send e-mails while driving. It also responds to incoming messages with an outgoing message that tells callers that the recipient is driving, and will call them back when no longer behind the wheel.

“This behavior -- texting while driving -- definitely appears to be betting worse, but it’s hard right now for anyone to get their arms around how much it contributes to distracted driving, and, in turn, to crashes and injuries and fatalities,” says Matt Howard, ZoomSafer CEO, who was on one of the panels at the aforementioned September summit.

“But, the way I see it, people are only motivated to change their behavior through fear, or greed,” stresses Howard.

Howard got the idea for the software and started his company in 2008, after he nearly killed a nine-year-old boy when he was distracted by an e-mail on his mobile phone.

“If you’re not afraid of paying the ticket, or the points on your driving record, which leads to higher insurance premiums, you’re not likely to be deterred from engaging in this careless driving behavior. If you don’t have the economic incentive, the motivation to change is low.

Playing To The Lawyers

At present, ZoomSafer’s primary markets are companies who provide their employees with company-issued cell phones and company cars.

“In that situation, if you’re behind the wheel, and you get into an accident and injure someone while texting, the plaintiff’s attorney will sue your company,” says Howard. “So if individuals do not currently feel motivated by texting bans and enforcement, and are not fearful of paying a fine, well, companies are definitely motivated to reduce their legal liability.

Howard says the texting-while-driving problem is especially vexing because it reveals “this perverted need that so many people have to stay hyper-connected, a need that seems to be stronger than the knowledge that and texting while driving could end up costing them their lives.

“They know it’s distracting, they know it’s dangerous, but it’s really just a new spin on that old attitude, the one where people tell themselves, ‘It can’t happen to me.’”