Stricter Smartphone Laws Work, Reducing Rear-End Crashes: IIHS Study

Smartphones, as much as usefulness they bring to daily life, are a dangerous accessory behind the wheel of an automobile. Currently 25 states have laws on the books requiring hands-free phone use while driving. Several others have restrictions for young drivers, or in school or work zones.

Like the laws for getting a drivers license, many states have different rules.

"Technology is moving much faster than the laws," said Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in a statement. "One solution may be to make them broader, rather than trying to come up with an exhaustive list of banned behaviors."

Because phones now act as navigation devices, radios, payment portals, social media devices and more, lawmakers have used two tactics. The first attempts to outlaw each operation while driving, the second has broader language against holding or using a cell phone while on a public road.

IIHS examined crash rates in three states that adopted the broader language strategy, noting that in general distracted driving crashes are typically underreported. The study only looked at rear-end crashes as they are associated with cell phone use more than any other type of crash.

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A driver looks at his cell phone while on the road. Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

Oregon, Washington and California each put laws on the books in 2017 regarding the use of cell phones while driving, saying that the only acceptable interaction was with a hands-free system. However, Oregon and Washington banned "holding" of a cellphone and specified that the ban still applies when the vehicle is stopped temporarily.

California did not specify that its ban extended to times when the vehicle is stopped. It used the language "holding and using," so a theoretically a driver could say they were holding but not using their phone when pulled over.

"Ultimately every one of us knows that driving while using a cell phone is unbelievably distracting from top to bottom. Society has shifted gears rapidly with using cell phones while driving and there is no choice but to be much more rigorous and serious to get people to look up and not down," Washington Democratic state senator Reuven Carlyle told Newsweek.

Carlyle was one of the sponsors of SSB 5289, passed in the 2017-18 legislative session. He wanted to make sure that the extra language of both "holding" and "using" were included after talking to a neighbor who is also a police officer.

"I asked my neighbor what he needs. And he said 'clarity.' So it was a conscious effort. We wanted it to be as expansive as possible, so we purposely included those words, which allow law enforcement to use their judgement. Any step we can take, we have to take," Carlyle said.

Texting while driving
States are increasing enforcement of cell phone driving laws across the country. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For the study researchers compared crash rates over 2015-19 with two control states, Colorado and Idaho, which already had texting bans in place but did not change their laws to prohibit other cellphone use. It made several adjustments for changes in the unemployment, miles traveled and the fact that California and Oregon legalized marijuana during the period.

According to the study, the rate of police-reported rear-end crashes of all severities did not change in California with the broadening of the law, while crash rates in Washington dropped 8 percent. The researchers didn't get to analyze Oregon drivers because the state changed its rear-end crash reporting rules during the study period.

The monthly rates of rear-end crashes with injuries also stayed the same in California for the period. The declining trend continued after the law went into effect. Compared with controls groups Oregon's monthly crashes with injury went down 9 percent and Washington's dropped 11 percent.

Reagan says that using straightforward language may not only boost compliance but also encourages police officers to give tickets for the infraction, which won't be thrown out in court. In Oregon distracted driving convictions rose 50 percent in 2018 and another 27 percent the next year. Washington, coming off previous drops in citations, saw a 74 percent increase in 2018 and an 11 percent increase in 2019.

The fines in these states differ as well. In California, where rear-end crash rates stayed the same, the fines for a first and second offense were only $20 and $50. In Washington they were $136 and $234 and in Oregon they were $265 and $440 for the first two. A third offense in Oregon leads to a $2,000 fine, a criminal misdemeanor charge and six months in jail.

California changed its law after the conclusion of the study period to add one point to a driver's license for a second distracted driving offense if it occurs within three years of the first.

"Our findings suggest that other states could benefit from adopting broader laws against cellphone use while driving, but more research is needed to determine the combination of wording and penalties that is most effective," said Reagan in a statement.