The water balloon theory of driver distraction...

Guest Bloggers

Guest Bloggers | Sep 29, 2010

By David Strayer

Remember that summer pastime of filling balloons with water and then tossing them at each other to keep cool on hot afternoons. One thing about a water balloon, if you push on one side, it will squish out somewhere else until it bursts.

Countermeasures to address driver distraction often act like that squishy water balloon. Dealing with one problem may cause others to crop up.

For example, a recent headline reads "Texting Ban for Drivers Increases Crash Rate". The 2010 study from the Highway Loss Data Institute found that crash rates actually rose in three out of four states after texting bans were put in place.

How could this be? Surely a texting ban shouldn't cause crashes to increase.

There are probably several reasons for the increase, but one factor appears to be that some drivers responded to the ban by moving their phone out of sight when they were texting. The increase in crash risk is caused, in part, because drivers' eyes are diverted from the road for longer periods of time. The longer a driver's eyes are off the road, the greater the chances that they will get into a crash.

This illustrates the problems we face in dealing with a complicated problem like driver distraction. Well-intentioned laws can have unintended consequences. So outlawing texting while driving (an activity that is significantly worse than driving at the legal limit of intoxication for alcohol) could cause people to engage in even riskier behavior.

The moral of this story is that attempts to use laws or technology to try to deal with impaired driving can have unintended consequences. It does NOT mean that we shouldn't outlaw texting while driving - we should, in fact, have laws that prohibit this activity. But we need to be careful to make sure that the laws end up making crashes less likely to happen. We also need to have strict enforcement and education campaigns to help deal with the problem. For now it appears that attempts by some drivers to covertly text may end up offsetting the benefits of legislation.

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