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Spotlight on Economics: Just Hang Up

Studies have found that drivers tend to downplay the risk of their own phone use.

By Siew Hoon Lim, Associate Professor NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department

In North Dakota, the rate of fatal motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver from 2010 to 2013 was less than 6 percent and went up to more than 10 percent in 2014. Across the country in recent years, there have been more regulations and restrictions on drivers’ cellphone use.

Distracted driving laws in the U.S. can be categorized into three broad types: hand-held cellphone bans, all cellphone bans and texting bans.

North Dakota does not prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones; only 14 states ban hand-held cellphone use by all drivers. Currently, none of the U.S. states ban all cellphone use for all drivers, but 38 states, including North Dakota, have laws that ban all cellphone use by novice or teen drivers. North Dakota is also one of the 46 states that ban text messaging for all drivers.

The American public, in general, supports legislation to ban cellphone use by drivers. Results from most studies in the past conclude that primary hand-held cellphone bans are effective in reducing crashes.

For example, the results of one of my past studies suggest that a hand-held cellphone ban is effective in reducing fatal crashes involving drivers between 18 and 54 years of age. However, in another study, the results also suggest that hand-held cellphone bans targeting all drivers, regardless of age, reduced fatal crashes involving young drivers, but there was insufficient evidence to conclude that laws that ban all cellphone use by young drivers only were effective.

Laws that target a specific age group are a common policy practice across the country. States that prohibit all cellphone use by teen drivers while allowing hand-held phone use by adult drivers create a conundrum. Although the laws are well-intentioned, they are difficult to enforce.

Imagine that a professor has a course policy on electronic device use in her class in a large auditorium: Students who are 18 years old or younger (the less experienced learners or freshmen) are not allowed to use any electronic devices during her lectures; meanwhile, students who are older than 18 are exempt from this rule. How is she going to enforce this policy? What kind of message is she sending to her students? Does she really mean what she says?

Aside from the issue of enforcement, researchers at the University of Michigan found that teen drivers’ distracted driving behavior correlates with their perceptions of their parents’ behavior. Their results suggest that parental examples and teens’ perceptions of their parents’ behaviors play an important role.

When their parents and other older drivers are free to talk on their hand-held cellphones when operating a vehicle, it is hard to educate and convince younger drivers that it is not ok and not safe to drive while distracted.

Studies have found that people tend to downplay the risk of their own phone use, and drivers tend to overestimate their own ability to drive and talk on the phone concurrently. While more experienced drivers may be more able to respond to unexpected road or traffic conditions, a large number of studies has unequivocally concluded that drivers’ cellphone use is strongly associated with an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

Regulations may be necessary to curb distracted driving. But the laws are ineffective if they are difficult to enforce and drivers’ attitudes toward their own phone use do not change.

Be a responsible driver; just hang up.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - July 13, 2016

Source:Siew Hoon Lim, 701-231-8819,
Editor:Kelli Armbruster, 701-231-6136,
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