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Cars crash despite texting, phone bans

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board called for a nationwide ban on texting and talking on cell phones while driving.

"NTSB members say the action is necessary to combat a growing threat posed by distracted drivers," CNN reported.

And most of the time, that statement would be enough.

But there's a problem: The research doesn't support the NTSB's stance.

Wait, that's not quite true: Plenty of research proves talking on a cell phone is uniquely distracting, much more so than, say, talking with a passenger in the car. And texting is even more distracting.

The trouble is that banning the practices doesn't seem to work. Consider the findings of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance nonprofit that's dedicated to reducing losses from car crashes.

The institute usually agrees with the NTSB. For example, here's the institute on graduated driver licensing for teenagers: "A national study found that teen licensing laws rated good are associated with a 30 percent lower rate of fatal crashes per population of 15-17 year-olds, compared with licensing laws that are rated poor.

"A similar study found that good-rated laws reduce the insurance collision claim rates of 16-year-olds by 20 percent."

But as the institute also declares, texting and cell-phone bans simply do not have that effect -- or even anything close.

The institute's 2010 study compared crash rates in states with bans to the rates in nearby states without such rules. The result: "In none of the four states where texting bans could be studied was there a reduction in crashes," the institute reported.

Likewise, "bans on handheld cell phone use by drivers have had no effect on crashes, as measured by collision claim frequencies."

These results are consistent with the institute's other findings on this issue throughout the decade.

Let's be clear: The institute does not deny that talking or texting on cell phones is distracting. In fact, the evidence suggests cell phone conversations and texting "increase crash risk during their occurrence," the institute notes.

But they don't seem to increase crash rates. "Despite the increase in cell phone conversations and texting, there has not been an upward trend in either fatal crashes or collision claims," the institute declares.

"And most important for policy-makers, laws banning these practices are not reducing crash risk in the United States."

Why? The institute doesn't know, saying only that "these results indicate distracted driving crashes are a complicated issue."

But before Congress considers a nationwide ban, researchers should study the bans already in place.

Before we ban a tool that motorists find useful and convenient, let's make sure the ban would work. -- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald