Distracted driving plays part in up to 25% of crashes

John Egan

Distracted driving -- fueled in large part by smartphones -- is linked to an estimated 15 percent to 25 percent of car crashes, according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. Meanwhile, the report points out, texting likely increases the risk of a traffic crash more than cellphone use does.

"Drivers frequently are distracted, perhaps as much as half the time while driving," the report says.

Much of current research is 'incomplete'

Still, the report -- which reviews distracted driving research from more than 350 scientific papers published between 2000 and 2011 -- indicates there's no solid proof that bans on using cellphones and texting behind the wheel reduce traffic crashes, injuries or deaths.

“Despite all that has been written about driver distraction, there is still a lot that we do not know,” says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Much of the research is incomplete or contradictory. Clearly, more studies need to be done addressing both the scope of the problem and how to effectively address it.”

The report states that cellphone use "does increase crash risk in some situations for some drivers." According to the report, the only "definite conclusion" is that use of a handheld cellphone increases crash risk "to some extent."

As for texting while driving, the report says it probably boosts crash risk more than cellphone use "because texting requires both visual and manual distraction for a longer period of time" than dialing a cellphone does. The only data on the risk of texting while driving come from two studies of commercial vehicles, the report says, "so the results may not be accurate and may not apply to passenger vehicle drivers." 'An emotional issue' The association's research review was financed by State Farm, the country's largest auto insurance company. “

While distracted driving is an emotional issue that raises the ire of many on the road, states must take a research-based approach to addressing the problem,” Harsha says. “Until more research is conducted, states need to proceed thoughtfully, methodically and objectively.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association represents highway safety offices in U.S. states and territories. Bans, enforcement encouragedTo combat distracted driving, the association's report suggests:

  • Enacting cellphone and texting bans for all novice drivers. As of June, 30 states and the District of Columbia prohibited use of cell phones by novice drivers, and 41 states and D.C. outlawed texting by novice drivers. "Novices are the highest-risk drivers," the report says.
  • Enacting bans on texting for all drivers. The report notes that texting "is obviously distracting and counter to good driving practice" that using a cellphone behind the wheel. "But texting bans are difficult to enforce," the report says. As of June, nine states and D.C. prohibited talking on a handheld cellphone while driving.
  • Enforcing all current laws on cellphone use and texting behind the wheel. "Enforcement will increase any law's effect, while failing to enforce a law sends a message that the law is not important," the report says. The report says states that haven't passed bans on using handheld cellphones while driving should hold off on such legislation until more research is done.
  • Setting up programs that inform drivers about distracted driving. Cellphone and texting laws "should be publicized broadly to increase their effects," the report says.
  • Helping employers develop policies and programs regarding distracted driving. "Company policies can be a powerful influence on employees' driving," the report says.

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