Study finds cellphone bans lead to safer streets – sometimes

Nick DiUlio

It’s certainly no secret that cellphone use behind the wheel impairs your driving ability. But until now, analysts really had no idea what sort of long-term effect that statewide cellphone bans had on accident rates.

According to new research from the University of Illinois, states that have enacted behind-the-wheel cellphone bans over the past decade can expect to see a relative decrease in accidents on urban streets. The study is the first of its kind to analyze the long-term effect of such bans.

“Most other studies focus on a very short-term analysis,” says study leader Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer science and mathematics at the University of Illinois. “A law is enacted and researchers look at the immediate impact. We tried to take a much longer view and look at the impact not just over six months to a year, but over several years.”

Urban vs. rural

To do this, researchers examined injury accident trends in New York — the first state to enact a cellphone ban 11 years ago — and compared that data with Pennsylvania, which doesn’t have a cellphone ban.

Jacobson says he and his research team compared these two states because they’re so similar. They both have densely populated urban areas and similar rural regions with the same type of terrain and weather conditions.

According to Jacobson, he and his research team examined the number of licensed drivers per square mile of roads to estimate traffic volume by county. These counties were categorized as urban, rural and very rural.

In each of these three categories, cellphone bans actually gave way to an immediate rise in accidents. This was followed, however, by a steep decline over a period of seven years. In higher-density areas, there was a “clear, statistically significant” connection between the ban and the decrease in car accidents that caused injuries, Jacobson says.

What was most surprising, however, was that bans in very rural areas actually led to an increase in accident rates over the same period of time.

“On one hand, the decrease in accidents wasn’t really a surprise. But the increase in accidents in rural areas, that was a bit shocking,” Jacobson says.

Jacobson says he and his fellow researchers don’t have an answer for why the accident rates increased in rural areas, but future studies may attempt to figure it out.

“What we’re really focusing on right now is that accident rates went down in urban areas because of a cellphone ban,” Jacobson says. “And that’s a very positive finding.”

A no-brainer and a head-scratcher at once

Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania, says the study’s findings are precisely what he would expect.

“Driving while doing anything else distracts from your attentiveness — and lack of attentiveness results in more accidents. What consumers need to realize is if the call is that important, pull over, make the call and don’t risk the lives of other people for your personal convenience,” Lynch says.

What Lynch could not explain was why rural area accidents actually rose in the years following a cellphone ban.

Rhode Island personal injury attorney Kevin Landry has a theory. Landry, who has specialized in distracted driving cases for the past decade, says people have a different perception of driving laws in rural areas vs. urban areas.

“When driving on very rural roads in America, there is far less supervision by law enforcement officials, which leads to less worry about cellphone bans and punishment,” Landry says. “Regardless of where you live, driving while distracted leads to increased personal injury claims. So take precautions. Store your cellphone away and keep both eyes on the road at all times.”

The car insurance implications

As with all things accident-related, cellphone use behind the wheel can have a significant effect on your car insurance, whether it’s banned in your state or not.

“If you’re involved in an at-fault accident because you were using a cell phone, it’s just like running a stop light or stop sign and hitting someone,” says Dan Weedin, an insurance and risk management consultant in Seattle. “In the insurance company’s eyes, that’s a high degree of negligence and your policy is probably not going to be renewed.”

When it comes to buying a new policy after your insurance company drops you, Weedin uses just one word to describe the process: Brutal. The negligence that caused the accident will stay on your record for three years; during that time, insurers either will coverage or charge an expensive high-risk (or non-standard market) premium.

“People need to think of driving with a cellphone like they do drunk driving,” Weedin says. “Insurance companies are (sticklers) when it comes to statistics, and they know without a shadow of a doubt that driving with a cellphone is as dangerous as driving under the influence, regardless of your state’s laws.”

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