Do Handheld Device Bans Make Roads Safer?

Since 2009, nearly one-hundred Texas cities have passed either “texting while driving” or “handheld devices” bans. In many of these cities, like Austin, drivers caught violating the new provisions may be charged with a Class C Misdemeanor and fined up to $500. If left unpaid, offenders may end up facing jail time. Given these harsh penalties, residents of such cities should expect that texting and handheld regulations are making their roads safer by reducing distracted driving accidents (DDA), as city officials state they are intended. Unfortunately, the data suggests that these bans are largely ineffectual. The following chart demonstrates their impotency and constructs the foundation of my hypothesis:

According to statistics provided by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the rate of distracted driving accidents has been steadily increasing since 2011, regardless of the texting and handheld device bans being adopted by more and more Texas cities. If the bans were effective at lowering the number of DDAs, we should expect to see the annual number declining as more cities pass bans. Instead, we find the exact opposite; the more cities pass bans, the more DDAs increase. Although this chart suggests such city ordinances are, therefore, failed attempts at lowering DDAs, its findings are broad and must undergo scrutiny before being accepted as true. The remainder of this article will be dedicated to debunking arguments that aim to falsify the hypothesis that texting and handheld bans do not lower DDAs and, hopefully, by doing so, the validity of my claim will be substantiated.

1.) Population Control. One explanation for why DDAs have continued to increase despite more and more cities adopting texting and or handheld devices bans is Texas’s augmenting population. To correct for this variable, I divided the number of DDAs by Texas’ population for the same given year so that the resulting figure would be a ratio expressing the total number of DDAs relative to the amount people living in Texas at the time. The results do minimize the apparent severity of the DDA increases, but the trend remains the same, as is reflected by the chart on the left. Thus, even when controlling for population, DDAs have still been growing in frequency since 2011 despite more cities adopting bans, which bolsters the hypothesis that they are ineffective solutions for reducing DDAs.

2. ) The Other Causes of Distracted Driving. One explanation that could redeem the ostensible futility of texting and handheld bans is that the influx of distracted driver accidents over the previous few years can be attributed to other causes of “distracted driving”. This would imply that texting and handheld bans have been effective at accomplishing their mission. But, the available evidence refutes this claim. TxDOT’s website defines ‘distracted driving’ as accidents caused by drivers paying attention to technological handheld devices (i.e. cellphones, MP3s, gaming devices, etc.), eating, drinking, reading, grooming, or conversation with a passenger. In order to support the argument that eating, drinking, reading, grooming, and conversation have been causing the influx of distracted driving crashes over the past few years, one would need to provide evidence that shows these activities have been increasing. Yet, no state agency, federal institution, insurance company, or other credible organization has produced statistics affirming the rise of drivers engaging in these kinds of activities behind the wheel. Nor is there a common sensical reason to believe there has been an increase of drivers applying lipstick and eating donuts while behind the wheel. On the contrary, however, there is an abundance of evidence supporting the hypothesis that the number of annual distracted driver accidents has been caused by handheld technological devices being used by drivers.

A national Pew Research poll published in 2015 shows that the number of adults owning cellphones, smartphones, and tablet devices has been increasing steadily since 2010. This follows a similar trend to the overall number of distracted driver crashes in Texas. Furthermore, results from a study conducted by the Highway Traffic Safety Association found that the number of drivers observed manipulating technological devices while driving increased by 6% between 2010 and 2015. Correlatively, the number of distracted driver crashes in Texas also increased by a similar margin during the same timeframe These statistical findings suggest that the continuous uptick in annual distracted driving accidents since 2010 can be attributed to drivers using technological devices while driving, not to increased amounts of drivers eating, grooming, drinking, and talking. If this is true, as the evidence alludes, then texting and handheld devices are likely the culprits responsible for the increase of distracted driver accidents; a finding that suggests texting and handheld bans haven’t been successful in achieving their stated goal.

3.) The Bad Outweigh the Good. Another argument against my hypothesis is that the Texas Cities that have not adopted bans are disproportionately experiencing more distracted driving accidents, which is skewing the annual statewide average and overlooking the success of cities that have passed bans. To investigate this claim, I compiled case studies of six different cities that fall into three categories of city traffic law: (1) cities with a “texting while driving” ban, (2) cities with a “handheld device” ban, and (3) cities with no bans. For this analysis, I picked Austin (Travis County) and Stephenville (Erath County) to represent cities with a “texting while driving” ban, El Paso (El Paso County) and Amarillo (Potter County) for cities with “handheld devices while driving” bans, and Dallas (Dallas County) and Houston (Harris County) for cities with no bans. (Methodology Note: cities pass these ordinances, but TxDOT only keeps record of distracted driver crashes by county, so I tried to find cities and counties with heavy jurisdictional overlaps). If the claim that cities with bans are seeing a decrease in distracted driver accidents while cities without bans are seeing an increase or, at the very least, no improvements, then we should expect to find Austin, Stephenville, El Paso, and Amarillo performing better than their counterpart control group, Dallas and Houston. Unfortunately for those who support handheld and texting bans, the data does not conform to this expectation, even when controlled for population. All cities included in these case studies, whether they passed a ban or not, have seen relatively stable numbers of distracted driving accidents over the previous six years. According to this data, there is no reason to think cities with bans are outperforming cities without bans, and, thus, the argument that cities like Houston and Dallas are skewing the statewide average of distracted driver crashes is unfounded. Instead, the statewide trajectory of distracted driver accidents appears to be increasing due to causal factors unrelated to whether cities have passed bans or not.

4.) It Could Always Be Worse. A fourth and final argument that could be leveraged against my hypothesis is that the amount of distracted driver accidents would be increasing at an even faster rate if no bans were in place. The data harvested from my six case studies, however, weakens the validity of this speculation. If texting and handheld bans were brake pads that slowed down rates of distracted driving, then cities like Dallas and Houston should be experiencing higher rates of these kinds of crashes, since they do not have these brake pads installed. But, this is not what the evidence shows. As stated before, each city has shown little fluctuation in their distracted driver crash rates over the previous six years irrespective of whether bans were passed or not (see the six charts in previous paragraph). Therefore, it is unlikely that distracted driver crashes would be higher than they are now were it not for the cities that have passed bans. This is not to claim, however, that these bans never slow down DDAs. Clearly, as shown in the statewide graph, DDAs are augmenting each year. This data only points out that there are cases where a lack of a ban has not caused DDAs to increase, and there are other cases where the presence of a ban has not caused DDAs to decrease.

Conclusion: During this year’s 85th state legislative session, Tom Craddick introduced House Bill 62- a bill that would outlaw texting while driving on a statewide level. Similar bills have been attempted before, but have gone down in flames each time. In his frustration, Texas State Representative Gene Wu stated recently, ”I am getting pissed because this is outrageous. It is outrageous that our state cannot do something as simple as dealing with distracted drivers.” Without a doubt, using technological devices while operating a vehicle does increase annual distracted driving crash rates. However, the statistical evidence provided by Texas’ own state agencies suggests that distracted driving rates remain undeterred by cities passing texting and handheld bans. On the contrary, crashes have augmented each year despite more and more cities passing these restrictions. Considering this fact, it seems difficult to argue that the best medicine to alleviate the societal malady of distracted driving is to pass a statewide law that has been demonstrated to be impotent at the city level. Whatever political solution may exist for reducing distracted driver crashes, punishing drivers with fines for using technological devices appears to not be working.

Speaker of the House, Joe Strauss, recently went on the record as calling House Bill 62 a “common-sense ban.” Admittedly, before conducting this research, I thought bans on texting and handheld devices were common-sense, too. But, the data has challenged my intuition and that’s okay. Research does not finalize conclusions based on gut-reactions of humans, but rather on implications of empirical evidence. In the coming weeks, the Senate will decide whether they want Texas’ legislation to be based on same standard when they cast their votes on House Bill 62.

Cited Sources

“85th Legislature Regular Session.” Texas Legislature Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017. -

<http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=85R&Bill=HB62>

Anderson, Monica . “Technology Device Ownership: 2015.” Pew Research . N.p., 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 2017. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/29/technology-device-ownership-2015/

“Distracted Driving.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2017. <https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving>.

Mansoor, Sanya . “Texas House Passes Statewide Texting while Driving Ban.” Texas Tribune. N.p., 2017. Web. 2017. <https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/15/texting-driving/>.

Pruner, Dagney. “Texas House Passes Statewide Texting while Driving Ban.” Dallas News. N.p., 16 Mar. 2017. Web. 2017. <https://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas-legislature/ 2017/03/15/texas-house-gives-initial-approval-statewide-texting-driving-ban>.

“Quick Facts Texas.” U.S. Census Bureau. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. — <https:// www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/48>

“Texas Motor Vehicle Crash Statistics.” Texas Department of Transportation. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017. — <http://www.txdot.gov/government/enforcement/annual-summary.html>