Distracted driving legislation in Manitoba has failed to reduce the number of highway fatalities in the province. In fact, the province saw a record number of fatalities resulting from highway collisions in 2011. There is no debating this point. Cellphone use while driving was banned, and highway fatalities went up. This could be written off as an anomaly, until we consider the U.S. data on distracted-driving legislation. In the most rigorous study of the issue to date, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found collisions increased one to nine per cent in the four states they studied that had implemented texting bans when compared to similar states (five to 12 per cent for drivers under 25). This doesn't seem like just a coincidence. It seems like a trend.
These results seem counterintuitive. After all, cellphone use while driving is statistically dangerous. Cellphone use while driving increases the odds of a collision fourfold. The reason for the increase, of course, is non-compliance. When surveyed, 48 per cent of drivers in the 18-24 demographic cohort who live in U.S. states without cellphone bans admit to using their phones while driving. For the same demographic group in states with cellphone bans, 45 per cent admitted to using their phones while driving. In other words, banning cellphone use dissuades three per cent of people from talking or texting and driving. While it's tempting to say that's better than nothing, it really isn't. In essence, it means 45 per cent of people in this group are finding ways to hide their behaviour. This is a serious problem.
As unsafe as talking and texting while driving is, doing either from below windshield level is far more dangerous. According to the IIHS: "In one study, more than three times as many drivers experienced a simulated collision while using a head-down display (traditional dashboard display) compared with a head-up (display part of the windshield)." We've all seen people flouting the law by texting or calling from their laps. Rather than making the roads safer, distracted-driving legislation appears to make them more dangerous.
Clearly distracted driving is a problem. But what is to be done? The first principle of public policy ought to be "do no harm." Given the dangerous side-effects of distracted driving legislation, the provincial government should start by repealing the ban on texting and driving. Rather than focusing on process (phone use), we need to focus on outcomes (dangerous driving). After all, distracted driving is a broad category. Talking to passengers is a factor in collisions more than five times as often as talking on the phone. We simply cannot legislate away distractions. We simply cannot monitor what goes on inside every vehicle on the road. Instead, police should focus on punishing people whose vehicles exhibit dangerous behaviour. Regardless of whether someone is texting or yelling at their kids, they should be punished if they are driving erratically. But given that we live in a world with limited resources, enforcement will only take care of a fraction of the problem. There simply are not enough police officers on the streets to catch every careless driver. Frankly, I don't think we'd want to live in a society with that level of police enforcement.
There are four non-legislative approaches to reducing the danger posed by distracted driving. The first is technology. At the moment, hands-free cellphone devices are statistically as dangerous as hand-held units. This is partially due to the fact that there is still some interaction with the console required. As technology improves, eventually we may have truly hands-free devices that improve driver safety. The second is improved road design. The primary example is using rumble strips. Whether a driver is tired or distracted, drifting into another lane is quite possible. Installing rumble strips on the outside and on the inside of lanes has been proven to reduce collisions caused by drivers drifting out of their lanes. Third, and most importantly, education should play a major role. People underestimate the potential danger of distracted driving. Giving them graphic reminders of the associated danger can help shift driver behaviour. Finally, and probably most effective, is peer pressure. Social norms are at least as powerful as legal compulsion.
As long as dangerously distracted driving is socially tolerable, it will remain a problem. In other words, the solution lies with individuals -- passengers, friends and loved ones -- and not with fines, demerit points and police action.
Steve Lafleur is a Winnipeg-based policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org).