Texting while driving is illegal in most states, but what about reading or sending a text when you’re stopped at a red light, or texting if the phone is mounted on the dashboard? And is tapping the screen of your cell phone when using Google Maps or of your car’s touch-screen infotainment center legal?
Drivers and enforcement officers often have mixed interpretations of what is lawful, so wording in state laws that is more specific about what cell phone behavior is banned is essential and has the potential to cut crash rates.
Those are the highlights of a new study released earlier this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry.
“Technology is moving much faster than the laws,” Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute, said in a statement. “One solution may be to make them broader, rather than trying to come up with an exhaustive list of banned behaviors.”
For the assessment, researchers examined rear-end crash rates in Oregon, Washington and California after those states implemented broad prohibitions against holding or using a phone while behind the wheel.
Data from 2015 through 2019 from the three states was compared with that of the control states of Colorado and Idaho, which already had texting bans in place, but did not change their laws to prohibit other cell phone use.
Crash rates in Oregon and Washington dropped 9% and 11%, respectively after the laws went into effect. California did not achieve the same gains.
The results of the examination suggest that broader cellphone “holding” laws, rather than those that specify certain actions, can be effective at reducing crashes associated with distracted driving. Less clarity in the state’s law regarding temporary stops may partly explain this, according to the report.
California, Oregon and Washington all broadened their laws in 2017 with language that ensured that only cell phone interaction using hands-free systems that required minimal manual input was acceptable.
But Oregon and Washington included language that specified that the bans apply to times when the vehicle is stopped temporarily because of traffic or other momentary delays. California did not.
The greater clarity of the Oregon and Washington laws, especially with regard to temporary stops, may partly explain their greater success, Reagan said.
“Using plain, straightforward language to ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving, including simply holding a phone, may not only boost driver compliance but also make police more willing to issue tickets by making infractions easier to identify and less likely to be dismissed in court,” the report stated. “The presumption is that increased enforcement also results in greater compliance.”
In addition to greater compliance and enforcement, the severity of penalties is also thought to have been a factor. For example, in California, fines were typically lower than in Washington and Oregon.
“Our findings suggest that other states could benefit from adopting broader laws against cell phone use while driving, but more research is needed to determine the combination of wording and penalties that is most effective,” Reagan said.
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