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Like Red Light Cams, Cellphone Bans Just Don’t Work

In response to an article I wrote in January, 2010 entitled “Unintended Consequences: VA May Ban Cell Phones While Driving,” commentor “Amber” writes:

You’re an idiot and likely have stock in Nokia or some other communications conglomerate or support politicians who bow down to big business by sacrificing the good of their constituents. Delegate Algie T. Howell Jr. (D-Norfolk) is a courageous leader. God bless him and all them victims of careless cell phone using drivers. For the good of Virginians and the safety of our children may this law pass.

To my knowledge, I don’t have any stock in mobile communication conglomerates, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t invest in Nokia, but that’s a separate issue. For those who are wondering, Virginia’s House Bill 22 died in the committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety; although, I’m sure this won’t be the last time such legislation is introduced. That said, I stand by my position, and so does the research. The bill, sponsored by Delegate Howell, sought a total ban on the use of “handheld personal communications devices while operating a motor vehicle.” It was legislation against stupidity, destined to fail if implemented. The most it could have done was provide the state with a new revenue stream—much like speeding tickets in the Commonwealth.

That, and make the roads more dangerous. A report released in September by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute shows a slight increase in collision reports in states that enacted cell-phone bans. The report, available here, concludes:

Insurance collision loss experience does not indicate a decline in crash risk when texting laws are enacted. Rather, there appears to have been a small increase in claims in the states enacting texting bans, compared to neighboring states. Partly, this may reflect the difficulty of enforcing texting bans. …. However, lack of compliance by itself would predict no change in crash experience, not an increase as observed in the insurance collision data.

This unexpected consequence of banning texting suggests that texting drivers have responded to the law, perhaps by attempting to avoid fines by hiding their phones from view. If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it. Simulator research is consistent with this hypothesis. ….

The results of this study seem clear. In none of the four states where texting bans could be studied was there a reduction in crashes. …. If the goal of texting and cellphone bans is the reduction of crash risk, then the bans have so far been ineffective. Bans on handheld cellphone use by drivers have had no effect on crashes (HLDI, 2009), as measured by collision claim frequencies, and texting bans may actually have increased crashes.

Not only is this result consistent with “simulator research,” it’s also consistent with the existing data on red light cameras, a parallel issue. At instersections where the cameras were added, collision rates increased. Why? The prevailing theory is that drivers, wary of the chance of getting a ticket, are more likely to slam on their brakes than risk getting caught in the intersection when the light turns from yellow to red. Instead of paying the fine, they get rear-ended by the driver following them.

No one who’s looked at the data doubts that using a cellphone, and particularly texting, while driving is stupid and dangerous. AT&T, the second-largest U.S. carrier, recently released a short documentary to hammer the point home with holiday travelers. But just because an activity can be recognizably dangerous doesn’t mean government should ban it. I don’t oppose the law because I “have stock in Nokia or some other communications conglomerate or support politicians who bow down to big business by sacrificing the good of their constituents.” I oppose it because it doesn’t work; it hasn’t worked. Instead, the bans have made our roads more dangerous, and that’s not good for anyone’s constituents. The results are clear: as with so many things, government regulation will not solve this problem. Demonstrating the danger, as AT&T does well in the following video, has a far better chance of success.

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