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Crashes do not decrease for cellphone use reduction

Study finds that reduced phone use does not cut crashes. Laws banning cellphone use while driving apparently haven’t reduced crashes, according to a study released on Friday that compared the number of total crashes before the ban with the number after.

“We were very surprised,” said Adrian Lund, the president of the Highway Loss Data Institute that conducted the study and an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The thought was, of course that if law were passed that decreased cellphone use, then there should be fewer crashes. But that was not the case.

“You know that there should be fewer,” he said. “We were looking for that, and we aren’t seeing that pattern,” said Mr. Lund, who is also the insurance institute’s president.

This is the first look at crashes in California, New York, Connecticut and Washington since they passed bans on hand-held cellphone use while driving. One reason Mr. Lund was so surprised was that the institute had previously conducted research that showed that drivers talking on cellphones seemed to be four times as likely to crash.

The new study, which was completed in December, looked at crashes (and not just at those involving cellphones) in those four places and found no decrease in accidents, despite the bans’ having reduced the use of hand-held cellphones 41 to 76 percent. The researchers obtained those numbers by going out to street corners and exit ramps to observe how many people had cellphones up to their ears before the bans compared with after the bans.

“We can’t even see a blip in the data for crashes,” said Mr. Lund. Furthermore, there was no indication that increased cellphone use was resulting in more crashes nationwide, despite what studies and common sense would indicate.

What then is the implication of these findings?

“We still don’t think we understand this fully,” said Mr. Lund. But one possibility is that while cellphones are a distraction, maybe they are not “all that much worse a distraction than many of the other things that we do.”

Another possibility for the surprising finding is that drivers in places with these bans may be switching to hands-free phones. In this case, crashes wouldn’t decrease because the risk is about the same as with handset phones, Mr. Lund said.

While laws and who is covered vary from state to state, seven jurisdictions have banned hand-hand cellphone use for all drivers, and 19 have banned texting for all drivers. No state has banned hands-free cellphones for drivers of all ages, although some have done so for teenagers.

“Our real problem is to do something about the bigger problem of distracted driving, whether that’s cellphones, whether that’s the baby crying in the back seat, whether it’s the CD you dropped on the floor, whatever it is.”

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