During one week in December, two separate transportation agencies within the federal government made two major announcements. First, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – the government agency responsible for guiding traffic safety initiatives on the nation’s highways announced that crash fatalities had declined to record low rates. Just a few days later, the National Transportation Safety Board – the government agency responsible for investigating major accidents involving all transportation modes – made a controversial recommendation, suggesting that all 50 states and the District of Columbia pass laws banning the use of portable electronic devices (PED) while driving.
Ten states and DC have hand-held bans requiring motorists to use blue-tooth or some other device when making a call while driving. Thirty-five states ban texting while driving. According to NHTSA, about 3,100 people were killed in 2010 due to distracted driving.
For state legislators, before they go through the trouble of introducing, debating and passing an all-out ban on using PEDs while driving, they want to know if the need exists for such a law and if it will help. Several studies have been conducted over the years on distracted driving and the effect on being able to safely operate a car. But the nearly decade-long debate continues in state legislatures throughout the country—as shown by the fact that only ten states have a hands-free law and no state has a total ban.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has studied the issue and has found that hands-free laws do not reduce the crash rate. Conducting before and after studies in states with hands-free laws in place, IIHS discovered that the incidence of crashes did not go down.
The recommendation from the NTSB is just that—a recommendation. The NTSB doesn’t have the ability to force the states to act on the recommendation, but NHTSA and Congress usually take what the NTSB says seriously and some believe the recommendation gives the federal government the support they need to push the issue.
Following the release of the recommendation, the Governors Highway Safety Association called for more research on whether laws banning driver use of PEDs improve traffic safety. While data collection on driver distraction continues to build momentum in the states, taking a holistic view of crashes including the involvement of driver distraction would give decision-makers like state legislators the ability to make evidenced-based policy choices. Legislators would be able to make policy decisions knowing whether or not such laws would make a difference. Whether it’s a PED ban or requiring ignition interlock devices for drunk driving offenders, data analytics would take the guess work out of deciding which policies will make a difference.