Is It Time To Ban Mobile Device Use While Driving Altogether?

When we think of the primary culprits for auto accidents, there are usually two things that come to mind: alcohol and distractions from cell phones and other mobile devices. There already exist very strict laws against driving under the influence of alcohol, but driving while texting or talking on the phone are not similarly restricted in many areas. However, there are trends towards this direction. And now former Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, says that it’s time to ban mobile devices in cars altogether.

Although the dangers of driving while intoxicated are well established and accepted by the public, mobile device distractions are more controversial. But, research shows that they can be nearly as dangerous. There are an increasing number of accidents attributed to this problem. These often require subsequent auto repair jobs and sometimes result in injuries or deaths. LaHood, for his part, has started to call for a Federal ban to stop this trend.

CC Image courtesy of OregonDOT on FlickrThe Data Doesn’t Lie

It’s not just small fender benders that are more of an inconvenience than a crisis. Even these smaller accidents may require a car repair after the fact. But, there are also many fatalities caused by distracted drivers. The Department of Transportation (DOT) estimate is that over 3,000 people are killed each year by distracted drivers (the last year data was available was 2011).

By comparison, around 10,000 people per year die in auto accidents that involve drunken driving. Overall, there are around 30,000 traffic-related fatalities nationwide every year. So, even though distracted driving isn’t the biggest problem it still represents a sizable chunk of all auto-accident related deaths. The proliferation of tougher laws on drunk driving, better mass transit options in some areas and increased adoption of mandatory requirements for ignition interlock devices are all working to help prevent DUI-related deaths, but what about distracted driving?

Is It Time For A Federal Law?

Drunken driving is illegal in all 50 states. But, distracted driving is not. According to Ray LaHood it is time for congressional hearings into the need for a Federal law to ban driving while using a cell phone or other mobile device. While LaHood was in office (he resigned the position this January), he pushed for laws against distracted driving to be enacted on a state-by-state basis and was quite successful in getting them passed.

In 2009, when LaHood took office, there were 18 states with some kind of laws against distracted driving. When he left this January, that number had ballooned to 41. Only Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina and Texas do not currently have general laws against either handheld use of cell phones or texting while driving. In Colorado, it is illegal to text while driving, but not to talk on a cell phone. However, those under the age of 18 are prohibited from using a phone at all.

But, does the data support the need for these laws to be expanded to cover all mobile device use as LaHood recommends? Although the vast majority of states now include some form of law against distracted driving, only 12 states include a total ban on handheld device use. Some see this as unnecessary as demonstrated by the public backlash against New York’s cell phone ban back in 2001. But mobile device use has become much more widespread since then.

Are Distractions Getting Worse?

Nobody wants to get in an accident. The hassle of car repair, the potential for injury, the stress of dealing with it all. None of it is very much fun. But, people also love their phones and many see an out-and-out ban of mobile devices in vehicles as unnecessary. It’s true that there are other distractions that can cause accidents. Putting on lipstick, eating, disciplining children in the backseat; none of these are illegal in most places, although they can be just as dangerous.

The argument comes down to how important it is to have legislation to block mobile device use and how much of it can be handled on a common sense basis. The number of fatalities and auto accidents resulting in an auto repair or insurance claim indicate that there is a need for increased awareness of the problem. But would this be enough? Or is additional legislation required to provide a deterrent to distracted driving?

To their credit, cell phone makers and app developers are starting to become more aware of the issue and hands-free options are becoming more prevalent and fully-featured. Both Android and iOS devices allow you to operate them in large part through voice commands, but often some looking at the screen is still required. Many newer cars now also come with their own computer console and navigation system, which can also be a source of distraction, although efforts to discourage the use of these while driving are have also made some headway.

In the end, only time will tell whether the problem will get better with voluntary standards and campaigns to raise awareness, or whether additional legislation is merited.