Do Bans on Cell Phones While Driving Actually Work?

jtext-jpgDriving into work today, I heard a story on NPR that politicians in my current state of residence (Virginia) want to make texting while driving a crime. Of course, there’s no word on how police would be able to tell if someone is texting, looking at directions or dialing somebody’s phone number. But still, I think the intent is good and that people shouldn’t be texting while driving.

Including myself. I should work on that.

However, the question remains as to whether or not this actually improves safety on the roads or not. How do you figure that out, you ask? Simple.

Science!

Researchers from the University of Illinois recently published one such study. They looked at the accident rates during a 12-year period in the states of Pennsylvania and New York. In 2001, New York passed a law banning the use of all hand-held devices while driving. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has no such law. And since the two states are right next to each other, have similar weather patterns, and both contain large rural and dense urban populations, they seemed like good states to compare.

In the paper, regions were broken down into three categories of density based on the number of drivers on the road and the miles of road available for them to be on. The researches then looked at the accident rate both before and after the law was enacted in New York in both states. In general, both states showed a linear decline in accidents throughout the entire period in all three groups. However, New York saw a sharper drop after the law was enacted for its urban and rural populations.

In a bit of surprise, the “very rural” population in New York did not see the same benefit. In fact, its numbers dropped at a rate a lot lower than they were before the ban took place. For some reason, the ban seemed to have a negative effect when there are barely any cars on the road at all.

Why would this be?

Well, there aren’t any answers at the moment, mainly because no other studies have been conducted to either confirm or refute this finding. However, the authors speculate that it might just be that there isn’t very much data available because there are so few drivers, and that it could just be a statistical anomaly. That is, if a lot more states and very rural drivers were added to the data, the numbers might match up with the benefit seen in the urban and slightly rural populations.

There are, after all, limitations on scientific studies based on statistics.

But one thing is for sure, if you live in a city, bans on cell phone use will help keep people out of crashes.

University of Illinois graduate student Kevin Ryan and Air Force Institute of Technology researcher Matthew Robbins were co-authors of the paper “Assessing the Long-term Benefit of Banning the Use of Hand-held Wireless Devices While Driving” published in Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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