A look at empirical evidence regarding distracted driving
By J. Bradley Karl
Sunday, March 3, 2019
Many of you may know that East Carolina University’s Risk Management and Insurance program recently hosted an event that brought attention to the deleterious effects of distracted driving. If you missed the article, go read it. It appeared in the Daily Reflector on January 24.
The event featured testimonies from individuals affected by and/or concerned with the dangers of distracted driving. The event also underscored the dangers of distracted driving by allowing students to test a distracted driving simulator. The simulator was particularly useful for educating students, and, as quoted in the earlier Daily Reflector article, as one student noted “What the simulator is supposed to do is teach you (that) … you’re not invincible. Anything can happen to anyone.”
Using empirical evidence, academic research also educates us about distracted driving and information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a variety of other sources help to further inform all concerned parties.
Not surprisingly, most studies find that using a cellphone while driving increases the risk of an automobile accident. As a result, many states enacted laws that banned hand-held cellphone and/or texting conversations while operating a motor vehicle and researchers have devoted considerable attention toward understanding the effects of these laws.
One caveat often pointed out by researchers is that cellphones are not the sole distraction for drivers and other types of electronic devices, eating, manipulating the radio, or even conversations with other drivers can also cause distractions that increase the risk of an automobile accident. As a result, there is debate among researchers regarding the efficacy of laws that ban the use of cellphones and/or texting while driving.
Some studies present evidence that cellphone and/or texting bans reduce the likelihood of an accident. In one of my studies (published in the Journal of Risk and Insurance), I present evidence that cellphone bans may lead to reductions in insurance losses and premiums. However, other studies present evidence that cellphone and/or texting bans have little effect on reducing the likelihood of an accident.
Another important caveat when considering the empirical research related to distracted driving is that reliable data is needed in order to obtain reliable conclusions. Unfortunately, the data pertaining to distracted driving can be muddied by many factors. For example, if researchers examine police report data, the implicit assumption is that all drivers that were using a cellphone during a crash actually revealed this information to the police officer. However, it is not clear (and probably unlikely) that all people are willing to disclose the fact that cellphone use contributed to their accident. Or, if researchers examine the correlation between automobile accidents and cellphone bans, it is very difficult to control for the effects of other potential distractions (e.g. eating, manipulating the radio, etc.) on accidents.
It is important to note that, just because there are limitations with some studies of distracted driving, these studies should not be dismissed. Rather, we should look at the entirety of the research to draw some broad conclusions.
When we do this, we find some convincing evidence that distracted driving laws have some beneficial effects. In light of the empirical evidence, the IIHS also provides some valuable insight regarding distracted driving laws, as they suggest broader measures aimed at reducing distractions, more generally, are likely beneficial. The IIHS also notes that crash avoidance technologies will also be helpful in reducing the risk associated with distracted driving.
J. Bradley Karl is an associate professor in the Department of Finance & Insurance in the College of Business at East Carolina University.