Texting while driving is stupid and dangerous—there’s wide agreement on that. Until now, though, there’s been little information about how to stop it. A new study has good news: The easiest and most obvious intervention—making texting while driving illegal—works. Traffic fatalities dropped 3 percent in states that allow police to pull over drivers for texting, according to new research from the American Journal of Public Health. States that focus the prohibition specifically on younger drivers cut traffic deaths among 15- to 21-year-olds by 11 percent.
The findings, published in the August issue of the Journal of American Health, represent the best proof yet that widespread antitexting laws are effective. Analyzing national traffic fatality data over an 11-year period, researchers studied the effects of laws that that allow police to stop drivers specifically for texting (called primary enforcement laws), as well as of laws that ban the practice but allow police to write tickets only in conjunction with other traffic violations. Primary enforcement laws proved most effective, preventing an average of nearly 20 vehicular deaths per state, per year.
Experts have long agreed that texting while driving, a move that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, is dangerous. How to prevent it remained open for debate. A 2010 study found that bans on texting while driving led to a slight increase in collision claims in four states, a result safety experts attributed to the increased distraction of drivers trying to hide their phones. Three years later, another study concluded that, for single-vehicle, single-occupant fatalities, laws seem to reduce risk for several months before drivers adjust. Other studies have relied on simulators.
Even absent data, 44 states ban texting and driving, with primary enforcement in 39—more than the 33 that let police pull drivers over for not wearing a seat belt. The anecdotal evidence has been powerful. Such sites as Distraction.gov show heartbreaking accounts from some of the 3,300-plus road fatalities attributed to distracted driving each year. And filmmaker Werner Herzog was so disturbed by this “new form of culture coming at us … with great vehemence” that he created a widely distributed half-hour documentary on driver-texting crashes for AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign. Now there are data to back it up. “We hope that this rigorous research can be a guide to decision-making,” said Nir Menachemi, a professor of health-care organization and policy at UAB and a co-author of the study.