A Results-Free Cell Phone Law

Posted: Feb 02, 2010 12:01 AM
A Results-Free Cell Phone Law

Last week, an insurance industry report found that bans on using hand-held cell-phones while driving in California, New York, Washington, D.C. and Connecticut did not reduce the number of car crashes. To the contrary, crashes went up in Connecticut and New York, and slightly in California, after the bans took effect.

Think about it: Insurers are the most risk-averse, nag-happy, fun-killing folks in the private sector. If ever there was an industry that loved nanny-state laws and had nothing to gain in raising information that does not support them, that would be the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But its report found that the crash statistics simply aren't there. The institute's spokesman, Russ Rader, told me his group was "surprised there was zero effect" from the bans, as his group is well aware that cell phone use can and does distract drivers.

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He also acknowledged that the study is not, as critics have pointed out, "definitive," but he added: "This is the first time that we've had enough data that we could look at crashes."

Now, the study did find a drop in the number of California crashes after a state bill banning the use of hand-held phones while driving became law July 1, 2008. The study, however, also found that Arizona, Nevada and Oregon experienced the same drop in crashes as California, as Americans have been driving less, perhaps due to the recession. Ditto the data for New York, which passed its ban in 2001, and surrounding states.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the author of the California ban, objects. As is his habit, Simitian returned my call Monday morning as he drove to Sacramento. In keeping with his law, Simitian was using a hands-free cell phone.

When we talked in 2008, Simitian predicted his law would prevent 300 fatalities each year. California Highway Patrol statistics found a 22-percent decline in car fatalities from the previous three-year and five-year averages during the bill's first six months. That works out to more than 700 lives annually.

Collisions are down as well, Simitian noted. Maybe miles driven have declined, but the number of Californians with cell phones has doubled since he started pushing for a ban in 2001, and crashes nonetheless have declined. So, no, Simitian isn't rethinking whether the ban was a good idea.

I don't think there is a Californian who drives who hasn't seen a bad driver with a phone glued to his or her ear -- as Simitian well knows.

I've come to believe that police have neither the manpower nor the inclination to enforce the hand-held phoning while driving ban.

That doesn't take away from the law, Simitian observed. People speed, but that doesn't mean speed limits don't serve a purpose.

Rader wondered if the hand-held ban simply has led to more use of hands-free devices. Since studies show that hands-free phone calls also distract drivers, the hands-free ban may provide a distinction without a difference.

But don't expect Sacramento to ban drivers' use of hands-free phones. Enforcing such a ban would be mission impossible. Besides: "It's a political nonstarter," Simitian told me -- from his hands-free phone.

And he should know.