Do Anti-texting Laws Work?

In the war against distracted driving, banning of texting while driving has been a major battle.

But now, research from the Auto Club of Southern California has found that after an initial drop, texting while driving appears to be on the rise 15 months after California's texting ban was implemented.

The auto club says the observational roadside survey of drivers is the first examination of the long-term effects of a U.S. texting law. It is unlikely to be the last.

Before the texting law went into effect in California in January 2009, three auto club surveys conducted in mid- to late 2008 showed consistently that about 1.4 percent of motorists were texting at any point in time. Two surveys conducted shortly after the texting ban (May and July 2009) showed that texting (or manipulating electronic devices) had dropped about 70 percent, to about 0.5 percent. The latest survey, conducted in late March and early April 2010, shows that texting has more than doubled from the earlier studies, to 1.1 percent.

Many studies have clearly demonstrated the risks related to texting while driving. One study shows texting and driving raises the probability of a crash eightfold, while another shows it increases a truck driver’s chance of being in a crash by a factor of 24. Researchers call texting a “perfect storm” of danger because drivers take their hands off the steering wheel, and their eyes and minds are off the road.

“These results are disappointing,” said Steven Bloch, the auto club’s senior researcher. “The fact that we’re seeing a statistically significant rise in texting despite the state ban indicates that additional efforts are needed to help deal with the problem. It’s just over a year after California's texting ban was implemented, and texting is rising toward the level it was before the law.”

Several states have imposed similar bans of texting while driving, so the problem is potentially nationwide. One approach to change the tide against texting while driving is for law enforcement to issue more citations. However, it’s difficult for law enforcement agencies to cite texting motorists. Drivers typically hold devices in their lap, making it hard for law enforcement to see what motorists are doing. Texting citations are often given out by motorcycle officers, who have a better view of driver actions.

Because of this challenge, the California Highway Patrol reports issuing an average of only about 150 citations per month since the texting ban went into effect. By comparison, over the past year, the CHP issued about 11,600 hand-held cell phone citations each month.

“Agencies may need to rethink how they cite drivers for texting,” said Bloch. “A targeted New Jersey enforcement program uses officers standing on street corners to locate, pull over and cite cell phoning and texting drivers. That method of enforcement may be more effective.”

A second way to deter drivers from texting is by increasing penalties. The Auto Club of Southern California is currently supporting a proposed state bill that would raise the texting fine to $100 plus penalty assessments, up from $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. The bill also imposes a point on a motorist's driving record.

“Moving violations typically require the DMV to impose a point, and there is little reason that this dangerous traffic violation should be treated differently than others,” said Bloch. “Studies have established that imposing points on driving records is a very effective deterrent to hazardous driving.”

So while legislation to ban texting behind the wheel is a good and necessary first step to eliminating this hazard, those laws need to have real teeth to be effective.