Study Suggests High-Risk Driving is Independent of Phone Use

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that aggressive drivers are engaging in this risky behavior on the roadways regardless of whether or not they are using their cellphones. The news suggests that a ban on cell phone use while driving will not necessarily make our roads any safer.

The study, which was conducted by a team of MIT researchers, considered the performance of 108 “greater Boston” drivers. According to Bryan Reimer, associate director of MIT’s New England University Transportation Center, “the people who are more willing to frequently engage in cell phone use are higher-risk drivers, independent of the phone.” In addition, he notes that it is a significant-“not subtle”-difference with those “willing to pick up the phone.”

Of the participants, about half admitted to “frequent phone use” while driving, while the rest of the respondents claimed that they rarely used their phones behind the wheel. The study indicates that the overall behavior of the individual plays a bigger role than any specific habit or action. None of the individuals surveyed actually used their phones while they were observed, but those who admitted to frequent phone use “tended to drive faster, change lanes more often and spend more time in the far left lane.” Other behaviors observed in this group include rapid acceleration and slamming on the brakes.

Phone use while driving has been estimated by the National Safety Council to be involved in roughly 1 out of 5 car accidents. The council estimates that this amounts to about 1.1 million of the 5.4 million total crashes. More specifically, about 3 percent of the total 5.4 million crashes involved drivers who were texting. This, according to Reimer, supports the study’s evidence that a driver’s individual driving habits and inclinations may be more of a factor in risky behavior.

However, many states have enacted legislation aimed at controlling the cellphone use of motorists. The use of text-messaging services while driving is banned in 39 states and the use of voice calling (without a hands-free system) is banned in 10 states. However, as Reimer notes, “legislating the technology alone is not going to solve our problem.”

Many officials have even come out saying that they have not noticed as significant benefit come from the restrictions on cellphone use. Arian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told The Boston Globe that, so far, they “have not seen that those bans have reduced crashes. Perhaps more telling is the data indicating that crashes have not increased with the rise is cellphone popularity. “When we look at crash-count data,” Lund said, “we don’t see crashes going up.” The study helps in part to explain this observation and point to ways in which we could more effectively discourage risky behavior in general-such as training to discourage bad habits and increase overall awareness on the road.

The study also indicates that car safety systems are one of the best ways to reduce risky driving as they work by alerting drivers to certain dangers. These systems are already available on some vehicles and are becoming more prevalent. Despite this research, Massachusetts legislators are currently considering a ban on any cell phone use which does not utilize a hands-free system, and many state officials have indicated support for the bill.

It’s not the cellphone, but the driver that’s high-risk, The Boston Globe, August 27, 2012

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