A new study calls into question the efficacy of distracted driving laws that ban the use of cellphones while driving. The report, released Friday by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, provides further evidence that, not only are distracted driving laws ineffective, they might actually be doing more harm than good.
Provincial governments across the country have been clamping down on motorists' use of electronic devices — in Ottawa, police are even dressing up as homeless people to catch drivers using their phones at red lights. At least one Ontario provincial court judge thinks such laws can go too far, ruling in the case of a woman who picked up a dropped phone while at a red light that to be convicted of "holding" a cellphone "requires more than merely touching or a brief handling."
The Frontier Centre report questions whether these laws are even necessary in the first place, by examining data from Manitoba, which enacted its distracted driving law in July, 2010. Although not enough time has passed since the law was implemented to come to any firm conclusions, the early results are intriguing.
The total number of deaths on the province's roadways was steadily decreasing between 2006 and 2008, but spiked in 2009. In 2010, the number of deaths decreased once again, but the cellphone ban was only in place for less than half the year. In 2011, the first full year after the law took effect, deaths spiked to above 2006 levels.
Even more interesting is that the number of deaths attributed to alcohol, drugs and speed decreased between 2009 and 2010. Since these have nothing to do with cellphones, the data suggests that the number of accidents caused by using these devices may actually be increasing. In other words, after the handheld device ban came into effect, it seems that road deaths attributed to things other than alcohol, drugs and speed — most likely distractions –went up.
Since the sample size is so small, the report compared the Manitoba findings with larger studies conducted in the United States, and found similar results. A 2010 analysis conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that collisions in four states that had enacted cellphone bans increased between 1% and 9%, compared to four control states that allowed phones to be used behind the wheel.
The numbers were even higher among young people. The IIHS found that 45% of drivers between the ages of 18 and 24 ignored cellphone bans completely. Many of those who continue using handheld devices attempt to hide their activities, which ends up taking their eyes off the road. This is much more dangerous than holding the phone in a way that allows the driver to still see the road.
The numbers suggest that cellphone bans may actually do the opposite of what they are intended to: By encouraging people to use their mobile devices below the windshield, the laws might actually be causing more distracted-driving related accidents.
According to the author of the Frontier Centre study, Steve LaFleur, "There is no reason to think that Manitoba's ban on using cellphones while driving improves driver safety. All available evidence points in the other direction. The province should rescind the ban immediately and examine other ways to improve driver safety."
In order to do so, he suggests looking at harm-reduction methods, like improved driver training, and focusing scarce police resources "on enforcing existing dangerous-driving
laws." After all, "The externally observable behaviour of a vehicle should be of more concern to us than what is happening inside the car. We should be worried about people driving unpredictably regardless of their cellphone use or lack thereof."
When Alberta introduced its distracted driving law last summer, I argued the policy was based on "fear, rather than science." Hopefully provincial governments listen to the early research and take a second look at these laws. Unfortunately, however, it is often extremely hard to remove a bad law, once it has become the cause celebre among politicians.