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Handheld cellphone bans may correlate with lower distracted-driving fatalities, report says

Prohibiting drivers from using handheld devices leads to lower traffic fatalities, according to an analysis of NHTSA data by driver education company Zutobi.

Zutobi ranked states by a “distracted driving severity score” based on state population, the number of distracted driving-related fatalities in 2020 and the percentage of fatalities due to distraction.

New Mexico ranked worst, with a severity score of 99.98 — nearly double that of the next-worst state, Kansas. New Mexico experienced 148 distracted-driving fatalities in 2020. That was a rate of just over 10 per 100,000 licensed drivers. Around 38 percent of fatal crashes in the state involved distracted driving, Zutobi’s report said.

Second-worst Kansas logged a severity score of 51.21 and 4.5 distracted driving fatalities per 100,000 drivers. It had 90 distracted-driving fatalities, and nearly 22 percent of fatal crashes involved distracted driving. Louisiana, Wyoming and Kentucky rounded out the five worst states.

None of those states have a ban on handheld cellphone use for all drivers, the report said.

Louisiana is the only one to have a ban of any sort. It prohibits cellphone use when drivers are in school zones and for those with a learner or intermediate license, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Most states with the lowest severity scores have broad handheld bans in place. California, for example, received a 5.46 score, the second-lowest in the report, in part because of its 0.39 fatality per 100,000 drivers.

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The next three lowest states, Nevada, Connecticut and West Virginia, have similar bans.

However, the correlation between handheld bans and low fatality rates is not universal. Despite not having a ban, Mississippi had the lowest severity score in the country.

Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said while it may be tempting to correlate bans and fatalities, there’s conflicting evidence.

“Bottom line is that it’s not clear how effective they are,” Reagan said. “A number of [studies] reported that after the laws were introduced that crashes went down, fatalities went down. … But then there have been other studies that have found the opposite.”

Reagan has some theories about the trends in Zutobi’s report. He said one difference between higher- and lower-ranking states could be congestion levels.

“Think about the level of congestion in California and New York. If people can’t drive fast, you’re less likely to be in a fatal crash,” Reagan said. “The driving environment could come into play.”

Zutobi said the difference could result from governments in low-fatality states putting more work into awareness campaigns and anti-text laws.

Reagan has a warning, though: Distracted driving statistics are notoriously unreliable. Factors such as differing reporting methods and lack of evidence after a crash mean it’s hard to draw conclusions from them.

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“I’m almost certain that those numbers are a gross underestimate,” Reagan said. “So all the calculations that are done with them are really, to me, not very meaningful.”

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