The ban on texting by commercial drivers that the Transportation Department announced on Jan. 26 was only the latest in a series of developments that have catapulted distracted driving to the top of the nation's -- and Secretary Ray LaHood's -- transportation safety agenda.
Last fall, LaHood convened a two-day summit on distracted driving and launched the educational Web site distraction.gov. President Obama later signed an executive order banning federal employees from texting when operating government-owned vehicles or equipment. AAA is urging all states to ban texting while driving (19 plus the District of Columbia have already done so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures), while leading bills in Congress would either offer states grant money to enact bans or threaten them with losing 25 percent of their highway trust fund dollars if they don't.
Yet a recent study by the Highway Loss Data Institute, the data affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, suggests that distracted-driving laws have no effect on reducing car crashes. In California, New York, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C., which all ban drivers from using cell phones, the patterns of insurance claims for crashes were no different from crash trends in places without similar laws.
What is the best approach to curb distracted driving? Is this a matter best left to the states, or should the federal government step in -- and if so, to what extent? Is the "carrot" approach appropriate, or is it necessary to wield a big stick? And should bans extend to hands-free devices, since some studies have shown that they can be just as distracting as texting or talking on a handheld cell phone?