Auto Accident Deaths and Injuries Dropped After Hands-Free Cellphone Laws Enacted: Study

New research indicates that states where hands-free cellphone laws were enacted have seen significant decreases in auto accident deaths and injuries not just among drivers, but also for pedestrians and motorcyclists as well.

In a study published this week in the medical journal Epidemiology, researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital indicate states with full bans on texting while driving have an average of seven percent fewer traffic fatalities, when compared to states which have only enacted partial bans.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states auto accidents are the leading cause of death in the United States, with an average of more than 38,000 drivers, pedestrians and cyclists being killed annually. Officials report the majority of these fatalities are the result of a distracted driver, which commonly is caused by attempting to talk, text or interact with applications on their smartphone.

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As of January 2020, 18 of 50 U.S. states have issued comprehensive bans on handheld cellphone use while driving to combat the nationwide problem. In addition, three states and the District of Columbia banned calling and texting, 27 states banned texting on a handheld cellphone, and two states had no general cellphone ban for all drivers.

To assess whether comprehensive cellphone bans were associated with fewer auto accident deaths, researchers reviewed motor vehicle crash data reported to the NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) from 1999 through 2016, to compare totals from states with varying cellphone bans. In total, researchers identified 616,289 motor vehicle fatalities which included 344,003 drivers or passengers.

Of the 18 states which have issued comprehensive cellphone bans that prevent nearly all use of a handheld device, approximately 7% less auto accident fatalities were recorded across all victims, including drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists.

Researchers indicate one of the suspected reasons for states with comprehensive bans having fewer deaths is due to greater driver compliance. The study found that a strong hands-free cellphone law may send a stronger signal to drivers, and driver may be more likely to believe that enforcement is possible when the laws govern overall cellphone use.

“Comprehensive handheld bans were associated with fewer driver fatalities, but calling-only, texting-only, texting plus, and calling and texting bans were not,” the researchers concluded. “This could be due to greater compliance; comprehensive bans clearly send the message that cellphones are not to be handled at all while driving.”

Prior studies released by the NHTSA found distracted driving accounts for 94% of all automobile accidents in the U.S., with handheld mobile devices and drowsy driving among the top reasons for many highway crash fatalities.

In a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health (JAMA), Texas A&M University researchers found states which categorize cell phone use while driving as a primary offense, which allows law enforcement to stop drivers and issue citations for the offense, were found to have four percent fewer accident victims seen in emergency rooms, when compared to states that have only enacted partial, secondary offense bans.

The researcher noted one reason primary texting bans may show the highest reductions in crashes is due to the ability to enforce the law, whereas secondary ban states require additional violations to result in law enforcement action, making drivers less inclined to follow the law.

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