Last week, an insurance industry report found that bans on using
hand-held cell-phones while driving in California, New York, Washington,
D.C. and Connecticut did not reduce the number of car crashes. To the
contrary, crashes went up in Connecticut and New York, and slightly in
California, after the bans took effect.
Think about it: Insurers are the most risk-averse, nag-happy,
fun-killing folks in the private sector. If ever there was an industry
that loved nanny-state laws and had nothing to gain in raising
information that does not support them, that would be the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety.
But its report found that the crash statistics simply aren't there. The
institute's spokesman, Russ Rader, told me his group was "surprised
there was zero effect" from the bans, as his group is well aware that
cell phone use can and does distract drivers.
He also acknowledged that the study is not, as critics have pointed out,
"definitive," but he added: "This is the first time that we've had
enough data that we could look at crashes."
Now, the study did find a drop in the number of California crashes after
a state bill banning the use of hand-held phones while driving became
law July 1, 2008. The study, however, also found that Arizona, Nevada
and Oregon experienced the same drop in crashes as California, as
Americans have been driving less, perhaps due to the recession. Ditto
the data for New York, which passed its ban in 2001, and surrounding
State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the author of the California ban,
objects. As is his habit, Simitian returned my call Monday morning as he
drove to Sacramento. In keeping with his law, Simitian was using a
hands-free cell phone.
When we talked in 2008, Simitian predicted his law would prevent 300
fatalities each year. California Highway Patrol statistics found a
22-percent decline in car fatalities from the previous three-year and
five-year averages during the bill's first six months. That works out to
more than 700 lives annually.
Collisions are down as well, Simitian noted. Maybe miles driven have
declined, but the number of Californians with cell phones has doubled
since he started pushing for a ban in 2001, and crashes nonetheless have
declined. So, no, Simitian isn't rethinking whether the ban was a good
I don't think there is a Californian who drives who hasn't seen a bad
driver with a phone glued to his or her ear as Simitian well knows.
I've come to believe that police have neither the manpower nor the
inclination to enforce the hand-held phoning while driving ban.
That doesn't take away from the law, Simitian observed. People speed,
but that doesn't mean speed limits don't serve a purpose.
Rader wondered if the hand-held ban simply has led to more use of
hands-free devices. Since studies show that hands-free phone calls also
distract drivers, the hands-free ban may provide a distinction without a
But don't expect Sacramento to ban drivers' use of hands-free phones.
Enforcing such a ban would be mission impossible. Besides: "It's a
political nonstarter," Simitian told me from his hands-free phone.
And he should know.