CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - A new study analyzing the impact of hand-held cell phone legislation on driving safety concludes that usage-ban laws had more of an impact in densely populated urban areas with a higher number of licensed drivers than in rural areas where there are fewer licensed drivers, according to a University of Illinois researcher.The study, conducted by Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science and the director of the simulation and optimization laboratory at Illinois, analyzed the relationship between pre- and post-law automobile accident rates using public data from 62 counties in New York. Jacobson and co-researchers Alexander G. Nikolaev and Matthew J. Robbins published their results in an article titled ‘Evaluating the Impact of Legislation Prohibiting Hand-Held Cell Phone Use While Driving,’ which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. The team found that after banning hand-held cell phone use while driving, 46 counties in New York experienced lower fatal accident rates, 10 of which did so at a statistically significant level, while all 62 counties experienced lower personal injury accident rates. They also discovered that the personal injury accident rate decrease was more substantive in counties such as Bronx, New York and Queens, where there was a high density of licensed drivers rather than in sparsely populated areas of upstate New York.
‘What that suggests is, if you have a congestion of cars and you’re distracted, you‘re more likely to hit someone,’ Jacobson said. ‘If you have a lower congestion of cars, you’re still distracted, but you‘re less likely to hit anyone because there are less people to hit. It’s simple probability.’Driver distraction is thought to be the cause of nearly 80 percent of automobile accidents in the U.S., resulting in about 2,600 deaths, 330,000 injuries and 1.5 million instances of property damage annually. Although a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving in rural areas has less of an impact on driver safety, Jacobson says that doesn?t necessarily mean the ban itself is worthless.
‘Hand-held cell phone bans are very valuable in high-density urban areas, but less so in lower-density rural areas,’ Jacobson said. ‘But that doesn’t mean they have no impact in rural areas. It just means that such legislation is less likely to have an impact on driver accident rates.’ Jacobson’s study differs from other studies in that, rather than focusing on reaction times of simulated drivers in lab setting, it analyzed publicly available data of accident rates published by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. To allow for a proper comparison between time periods, the years 1997 to 2001 were treated as the pre-law time period, and the years 2002 to 2007 were considered as the post-law time period. ’Nobody’s done a study like this before,? he said. ‘Everything prior to this is a micro-analysis of reaction time in laboratories by researchers.’ The challenge, Jacobson said, was getting the right data to analyze. ‘The best state that had the data to analyze was New York,’ he said. ’They’ve had the hand-held cell phone ban in place since 2001. So we had a lot of data, relatively speaking, in that we had a before-and-after snapshot of accident rates.’
Jacobson said one of the limitations of the study is extrapolating the data from New York state and projecting it onto the nation at large.’That’s fraught with problems, but these are limitations we acknowledge,? he said. ‘Every state is unique, but the overall conclusions still stand to reason.’