Cell phone bans do little to reduce crashes, study finds

New data from the Highway Loss Data Institute finds that laws requiring hands-free devices for cell phones don't change accident rates.

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    A California driver talks on a cell phone on Dec. 28, 2009, despite a statewide ban on the practice.
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You're a safe driver, right? You signal before changing lanes, never (gasp) text-and-drive, and always use a cyborg-chic hands-free device to talk on the phone. A model mobile citizen.

Here's a shocker: That Bluetooth appendage in your ear isn't doing anything to make you safer. This comes from the Highway Loss Data Institute, which studies such things. More precisely, its study found that crash rates in places with bans in place – California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington D.C. – stayed the same when those bans were implemented.

"The laws aren’t reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," said Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and HLDI president Adrian Lund in a press briefing.

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The National Safety Council earlier this month found that one in four US car crashes involves cell phone distraction. At the start of this year, Illinois joined the list of states that have banned texting behind the wheel, but with these new findings, are such laws enough? Digital distraction behind the wheel has been called a safety epidemic – should bans go all the way and ban all in-car cell phone use?

Some of the study's data confused the researchers, such as a finding in New York that a decline in crashes had occurred, but that it started before a cell phone ban was implemented – and then leveled out afterward. "Whatever the reason," Lund said, "the key finding is that crashes aren’t going down where hand-held phone use has been banned. This finding doesn’t auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving."

On this study, PC World's Brennon Slattery reminds:

As always, studies need to be taken with two whopping fistfuls of salt. Notice that this particular study only looked at 100 cars -- hardly enough to gather substantial data leading beyond a flimsy hypothesis. And, for you conspiracy theory types, it's worth reiterating that this study was funded by insurance companies, suits that profit off this kind of stuff.

The institute's full report is available here.

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