Comprehensive cellphone bans reduce driver fatalities, study finds

August 17, 2021

Tyson Fisher


Saving lives on the roadways can be as simple as a handheld cellphone ban while driving, according to research by Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

In a study recently published in the journal Epidemiology, researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital looked into any possible correlation between traffic deaths and laws with cellphone bans. Researchers discovered that states with a general, hands-free cellphone law have fewer traffic deaths than states without a cellphone ban or with less strict laws.

According to the study, more than 616,000 people were killed in passenger vehicle crashes from 1999 through 2016. Of those killed, more than 344,000 were drivers. In comparison with states with no cellphone ban, comprehensive handheld bans correlate with lower driver fatalities. However, there were no significant differences for nondriver fatalities or total fatalities.

A comprehensive handheld ban means drivers cannot use their hands when using their phone for any reason while driving. Accounting for lesser cellphone bans, including calling-only bans, texting-only bans, texting plus phone-manipulating bans or calling and texting bans, there are no differences in any fatalities.

The study suggests some theories as to why a comprehensive cellphone ban yields fewer driver deaths.

“This could be due to greater compliance; comprehensive bans clearly send the message that cellphones are not to be handled at all while driving,” the study states. “In addition, drivers may be more likely to believe that enforcement is possible when the laws govern cellphone use broadly. A survey found that drivers became more anxious when touching a cellphone after a comprehensive handheld ban was implemented in Georgia in 2018.”

On the other hand, a texting-only ban allows drivers to claim they were making a call, rendering the law virtually unenforceable.

Another study examining motor vehicle emergency department visits in 16 states from 2007 to 2014 finds that handheld bans (mostly handheld calling bans) correlate with approximately 5% fewer emergency department visits. However, texting bans correlate with approximately 4% fewer visits.

Researchers examined drivers, nondrivers (passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists), and total fatalities involved in a passenger vehicle (passenger car, sport utility vehicle, van and pickup truck) crashes from 1999 through 2016 in all 50 states. Adoption of cellphone bans was slow from 1999 to 2009. However, starting in 2010, states started to implement bans, focusing largely on texting. In 2016, a texting-only ban was in effect for 80 (40%) of 200 state–quarters (4 quarters × 50 states), a texting plus ban for 24%, a calling and texting ban for 6%, a comprehensive handheld ban for 22%, and no ban for 8% of state–quarters.

According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, 21 of 50 states have implemented hands-free cellphone laws (i.e., comprehensive handheld cellphone bans), which prohibit almost all handheld cellphone use including texting, calling and using apps.

Additionally, three states and the District of Columbia have a ban on calling and texting, 24 states ban texting, and two states have no prohibition on cellphone use for drivers of any age.

“We’re not suggesting states take people’s phones away while driving or tell them not to use their phone while driving,” Motao Zhu, lead author of the study and principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy, said in a statement. “We’re recommending that, if you need to use your phone while driving, you do so hands-free. Further, we recommend states implement hands-free cellphone laws to encourage this behavior change.”

According to the National Safety Council, the societal costs of crashes were more than $430 billion in 2016 in the United States. In Ohio alone, the associated societal costs for distracted driving-related crashes are about $1.2 billion every year, which is equal to $2,300 every minute. LL

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Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.