University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, over at the New York Times’ Economix blog, dug up a 2012 study by Cheng Cheng of Texas A&M University that tells the world nothing new about the currently confused state of laws against distracted driving, and in particular bans on handheld phone use. “Perhaps lawmakers overestimated the benefits of regulating this sort of driver behavior,” Mulligan writes. Or perhaps lawmakers didn’t pass laws that effectively protect vulnerable road users from dangerous, distracted drivers.
What Mulligan doesn’t mention is that distracted driving hardly stopped when today’s loophole-ridden and inconsistently enforced laws banned only the most obvious forms of distracted driving. Nor does Cheng’s paper make a convincing case that the newer, broader bans on texting while driving won’t save lives.
Cheng’s study, covering 2004-2010, even references earlier studies from the likes of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that show that today’s laws, which largely allow drivers to use phones via hands-free devices, have no basis in fact and would not be expected to save lives. As a 2009 meta-study cited by the National Safety Council put it: “Current research does not support the decision to allow hands-free phone use while driving.” Whether a driver controls the phone using her or his hands, through a headset, or through the car stereo, makes no difference: any driver using a phone is a distracted driver.
So why do state hand-held bans not work? Inconsistent policies, inadequate enforcement, and a purely symbolic focus on one small class of distractions (the hand-held phone) have hobbled most state bans from the very start. Lobbyists for powerful industries, like mobile phone carriers, consumer electronics makers, and now automakers keen on selling cars with built-in voice controls, focused initial bans on handheld phones while leaving loopholes for profitable add-on devices like Bluetooth hands-free sets. Enforcement officials have similarly fixated upon this easily-spotted group. A patchwork of state laws, with a majority of states only recently banning text messaging for all drivers, and the perception of scant enforcement leave most American drivers confused, or indifferent, about the bans.