Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on the latest texting while driving studies

Slate has a piece that also helps explain how weird the latest "texting while driving bans don't reduce accidents" studies released this week. Here is the kicker from Slate:
But missing entirely is the fact that the baseline has changed dramatically! Think of it this way: Fifteen years ago, precisely zero car accidents were caused by texting, because no one in America was sending texts, inside a car or outside. Today, the volume of text messages is growing massively. Indeed, if you get all the way to the bottom of the HLDI release, you'll find this nugget: "Texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too. It went up by about 60 percent in 1 year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009. "

This is crucial. If text messaging is rising 60 percent every year, it stands to reason that the number of people texting and driving is also going up by some significant factor. And so if the states hadn't passed their texting bans, the number of text-related crashes might well have been higher. It's also important to keep in mind that any statistical studies on this subject have major limitations at the data-collection level. As this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report puts it, "Police accident reports vary across jurisdictions, thus creating potential inconsistencies in reporting. Many variables on the police crash report are concrete across the jurisdictions, but distraction is not one of those variables."

On a related note, the texting while driving bans are one of those issues where many people wonder why we have to spend any time studying the effects. I've had people argue to me that texting while driving is obviously dumb, so why should any money--especially federal research dollars--be spent trying to figure out that texting while driving is dumb. I think these insurance industry studies are an excellent example of why research is important, and why we have to devote resources to studying things that seem obvious.

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