Cellphone bans aren't making the roads any safer

There’s plenty of proof that these laws won’t reduce collisions or improve driver attention

Kayte Deioma/Keystone Press Agency

Winnipeg police enjoyed a big day last month. The first day of the province’s ban on cellphone use while driving netted 109 tickets and nearly $22,000 in fines for local drivers. With this haul, Manitoba joined most of Canada in banning cellphones in the name of road safety. Despite all this popularity, however, there’s plenty of proof that these laws won’t reduce collisions or improve driver attention.

To date, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia have all passed laws forbidding hand-held cellphone use by drivers. Alberta is expected to follow suit this fall with a proposed law that goes even further—outlawing grooming, writing, sketching and reading while driving as well—in order to cut down on distracted driving.

And yet, even considering Alberta’s innovations, these laws are not entirely convincing in their motivation. That’s because hands-free devices, which allow drivers to use voice commands to control their phones, are still perfectly legal in every province that now bans drivers from using hand-held devices. This suggests a phone attached to your visor is somehow less distracting than one you hold in your hand. The evidence does not agree.

A much-cited 2006 academic study from the University of Utah found talking on a cellphone reduced driver attentiveness in many important ways. And “both hand-held and hands-free cellphone conversations impaired driving?.?.?.?there were no significant differences in the impairments caused by these two modes of cellular communication.”

Similarly, a report from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) summarizing the scientific evidence to date observed that there is a “general delay in information processing and degradations in driving performance regardless of mobile phone platform—hand-held or hands-free.” The Insurance Bureau of Canada came to the same conclusion in 2007. And in March, the U.S. National Safety Council said bans on hand-held phones “give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.”

Dialing a phone and having a conversation with a disembodied voice appears to distract a driver’s mind in ways that talking to passengers or listening to the radio does not. Of course, so does hot coffee on your lap.

Then there’s evidence from the real world. Earlier this year, the Highway Loss Data Institute, an organization funded by U.S. insurance firms, compared the collision rates of states with and without cellphone bans. There was no difference. This suggests one of two things. Either cellphone use does not lead to collisions despite all the evidence of its distracting qualities or, as the institute surmises, “drivers in jurisdictions with such bans may be switching to hands-free phones?.?.?.?In this case, crashes wouldn’t go down because the risk is about the same, regardless of whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free.”

If the goal of introducing hand-held cellphone bans is to improve road safety, this effort appears to have failed. In fact, according to the NHTSA, drivers who use hands-free phones tend to talk longer and more frequently while driving because it is less cumbersome. With official bans encouraging drivers to switch exclusively to hands-free devices, the end result could be an overall increase in total cellphone use by drivers. In this way, hand-held cellphone laws might actually be making our roads more dangerous.

Given all this conflicting, and widely available, evidence, why would provinces be so eager to introduce laws singling out hand-held devices? It is certainly easy. And it creates an attractive new revenue stream, as Winnipeggers found out in July. But laws should have a firmer foundation than that.

The most charitable explanation is that governments wish to make a statement about road safety. A ban on the most visible form of cellphone use thus has the appearance of taking action. Unfortunately, the action itself is demonstrably pointless. Whether or not this is good politics, it is bad law-making.

The illogical dichotomy of the current bans may also explain the observed reluctance of many drivers to obey the law. In Whitby, Ont., for instance, local police reported this month that compliance with the cellphone law has been falling throughout the year. Distracted driving may be a problem on our roads.

But so are laws that make no sense.

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