Text messaging behind the wheel of a moving vehicle is illegal in Tennessee and about 20 other states. But there’s continuing debate on just whether the laws here or elsewhere are showing any demonstrable policy successes.
That topic was the subject of a short discussion detour on this week during a AAA Auto Club presentation before the House Transportation Committee.
At this point, it is still “too early to measure statistical results (of the texting ban) in Tennessee” that was signed into law last spring, said Don Lindsey, public affairs director for AAA of East Tennessee.
But Lindsey said one of the only studies in the country to study texting behavior before-and-after passage of an anti-texting law — a “direct observation” survey of thousands of California motorists that was sponsored by AAA — indicated the practice had dropped off by more than two-thirds.
According to a AAA press release, visual surveys conducted prior to the texting ban showed that about 1.4 percent of Orange County drivers were texting while driving. “The two post-law surveys showed that level had dropped substantially — to about 0.4 percent — a decline of about 70 percent overall,” stated the release.
The release noted that “surveys of the general public and AAA’s membership” show support for texting laws running between 80 and 90 percent — but also that “20-25 percent of drivers admit to texting while driving at least once in the past.”
Lindsey told Tennessee legislators the California study gives clear indication that “laws can have an effect on behavior.”
Soon thereafter, Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, one of 30 state lawmakers who voted against the anti-texting bill last year, stopped Lindsey’s presentation to signal his incredulity with the study’s methodology and results.
“I find it hard to attribute (the texting decline) to passing the law,” said Johnson, who chairs the Rural Roads Subcommittee. “And how do you know they were texting?”
“You could see them,” Lindsey responded.
Johnson then asked how the researchers could be sure the motorists “weren’t punching a phone number,” which is still legal.
“They could tell because they didn’t put it up to their ear. They were looking at it and reading it. They could tell for any number of reasons,” said Lindsey.
Johnson indicated he remained unconvinced, and said that while the results might be “pretty dramatic,” “striking,” and even “shocking,” he wouldn’t read much into them.
“We have trouble with the texting law that we have right now, and I don’t think law enforcement has even applied it yet because they can’t prove it,” said Johnson.
Mike Browning, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety, reported after the meeting that state troopers have issued just seven citations for infractions of the law.
“(The Department of) Safety sees texting and driving as a very dangerous distraction behavior,” he wrote in an email to TNReport.
Browning added that “(i)t is a challenge for law enforcement since dialing on a cell phone is permissible, however if officers clearly observe a motorist engaged in texting or reading a device, they are subject to citation.”
After the exchange between the AAA spokesman and Rep. Johnson during the committee hearing, another lawmaker referenced a study released last month that suggested there’s no indication laws banning the use of cell phones while driving have improved traffic safety.
That study, sponsored by the Highway Loss Data Institute, found “no reductions in crashes after hand-held phone bans take effect.”
HLDI researchers said they examined monthly collision claims before and after hand-held phone-use by drivers was banned in New York, Connecticut, the District of Columbia and California. They also looked at similar data from nearby jurisdictions without the bans for control purposes.
The researchers determined “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 Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and its affiliate, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is an automobile insurer-supported group.
“Whatever the reason, the key finding is that crashes aren’t going down where hand-held phone use has been banned,” Lund said. “This finding doesn’t auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving.”
After that study was mentioned, it was AAA’s turn to scoff at the findings.
“It was very irresponsible of them to even comment on texting, because their study had nothing to do with texting,” said Kevin Bakewell, public affairs vice president for AAA Auto Club South. “Their study had to do with the use of hands-free, or hand-held cell phone bans in some states.
“There’s a huge difference between texting and using a cell phone.Texting obviously requires you to take your mind not only off the road, but your hands off the wheel, and you eyes off the road as well,” he added. “Their study did not even look at texting, but they did comment on it, unfortunately.”
Russ Rader, a spokesman for IIHS, acknowledged his group’s study didn’t look at texting bans, only cell phones.
“But we would not expect a different results if we had studied texting bans,” he said. “The reason for that is these laws are very difficult to enforce. Lawmakers who think these laws are going to have a significant effect on reducing crashes are likely to be disappointed — whether it is a hand-held cell phone ban or texting.”