Texting Laws Don't (Always) Save Lives

Texting Laws Don't (Always) Save Lives

By Anne Miller

SourceDark Horse/Corbis


We know texting and driving don’t mesh. Maybe there’s a better way to write our laws. 

By Anne Miller

Not all texting laws are equal. Some reduce hand-held tech-related deaths more than others. 

The laws restricting texting while at the wheel remain relatively new, and experts don’t have years and years of data to draw from. But at least one new study shows that even when putting aside some variables, such as how well jurisdictions enforce the laws, some texting laws work better at reducing deadly car crashes than others. 

Car crashes remain one of the top causes of death in the U.S., with more than 32,000 deaths from car crashes last year alone.

Three main findings: 

1. Cops need to be able to pull over drivers just for texting. And in many states, they can’t. The study found that without that ability, the laws don’t do jack. “States with secondarily-enforced laws saw increases in total fatality counts,” the study notes. Maybe people think they can get away with more texting because cops can’t cite them just for that.  

2. Anti-texting laws save the kids — but not adults. The anti-texting/driving regs had the biggest positive influence on the youngest drivers: 15 to 21. Kids may text more, and so may be the ones more likely to be pulled over — and deterred. Laws specifically targeting the youngest drivers led to an 11 percent drop in texting-related deaths. Those targeting all drivers didn’t impact the adults much, and impacted kids less, with a 5 percent drop in texting/driving-related deaths. 

3. Should cellphones be banned in cars wholesale? Rules restricting use of hand-held devices while driving (like talking into a phone and not a Bluetooth headset) had the biggest impact on adults — those aged 22 to 64. “This was true for both drivers and nondrivers,” the study says — meaning reduced deaths for not only drivers, but also passengers. The assumption here is that older drivers are more likely to use their phones to talk (so old-fashioned!) and so raise their odds of crashing into these restrictions.  

To be clear, texting in the legal sense doesn’t just refer to SMS. Laws include anything that involves text on a computer-esque device — so Instagramming and emails count.

States have different approaches to cellphone use while driving. The rundown, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association:

  • Total ban: No states completely ban cellphone use while driving. Many countries do, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Switzerland, Taiwan and Zimbabwe. But 38 states and Washington, D.C. prohibit novice drivers, and more than 20 states ban school bus drivers, to use a cell while driving. 
  • Hand-held phones: A primary enforcement statute exists in 14 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Meaning, the police can pull over drivers just for talking on a phone.
  • Texting: Affects almost every state: 44 for all drivers and 39 where cops can pull over drivers for phone use alone. Four others ban novice driver texting and three others ban school bus drivers from texting.