Texas Lawmakers Want a Ban on Texting While Driving. But Do the Bans Even Work?

In Austin yesterday, state lawmakers were joined by Texans whose family members were killed in texting-related car accidents for an emotional press conference in support of a texting-while-driving ban proposed by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

A nearly identical proposal easily passed last session, only to be vetoed by Governor Rick Perry, who called it a "government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults." But as academic studies and anyone who's nearly died in a fiery car wreck because they were trying to find the proper emoticon can attest, the practice is ridiculously dangerous. So legislators are giving the ban another shot.

This morning on Grits For Breakfast, the popular blog about Texas jurisprudence, Scott Henson called bullshit, arguing that not only are texting bans ineffective, they're dangerous.

As evidence, Henson points to a 2010 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which found that, in three of the four states it studied, crashes actually increased after legislatures passed texting bans. The authors of the study suggested that this was likely due in part to drivers using their phones surreptitiously to avoid detection, taking their eyes further from the road.

That said, Henson's not surprised that lawmakers are eager to raise themselves as the champion of a high-profile and politically noncontroversial issue.

"The go-to move for legislators whenever something occurs they don't like is to pass new criminal laws or seek to increase punishments, and if the only tool you own is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," he writes. "Grits does find it disappointing, though, that not one media outlet in the whole state offered up the caveat that such a law may do more harm than good."

Here's the thing, though: The IIHS study is pretty thin. It looks at only four states and draws its conclusions from fluctuations in the number of insurance claims filed. It doesn't separate texting-related accidents from other car crashes. And common sense suggests that a ban, if it's enforced and accompanied by a broader public awareness campaign, would make some number of drivers think twice. That's what's fueled the decline in drunk driving over the past couple of decades.

The bottom line seems to be that we don't know what the effects of a texting ban might be. They're too new, and there's not yet much good data on the subject. Either way, by the time we do have good data, texting will be obsolete and we'll all sending our late-night booty calls and grocery lists by Verizon 9G Telepathy, rendering this whole conversation pointless.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson