No texting, no calling, no drinking: Can NJ laws really make us safe on the roads?
To improve safety, should New Jersey pass additional laws that ban more behaviors and activities while you’re behind the wheel of your car?
Some experts that have been studying the issue of distracted driving for years are convinced this is the wrong approach, not to mention a big waste of time.
“Based on research that has been done, it’s unlikely that new laws are going to be an effective strategy in dealing with the big problem of distracted driving and reducing crashes,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
New Jersey this week has been debating whether the state should crack down further on distracted driving.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski proposed legislation that would bar “any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle.” The Sayreville lawmaker said the bill is intended to be a catch-all in order to avoid the need for new legislation every time technology changes.
The bill made headlines this week after some media outlets reported that the proposal would lead to drivers being pulled over for drinking coffee. The proposal, however, makes no mention of coffee, breakfast sandwiches or any other food.
More laws, little evidence
A 2014 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that despite a growing number of laws aimed at cellphone use in cars, it was unclear if the laws are resulting in fewer crashes or phone use.
“Even though those laws may get some people to put away their phones, they haven’t been shown to reduce crashes,” Rader said Tuesday. “When you look at something like that, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have an effect if you pick some of these other things and ban them as well.”
He says states like New Jersey already have laws on the books that address negligent or inattentive driving.
“If you’re doing something that obviously takes your attention away from the road, a police officer can pull you over and give you a ticket,” he said. “It’s unlikely that picking out individual pieces of the distracted driving problem and banning it will be an effective strategy to address the problem overall.”
Rader pointed out that “long before we had cell phones and cup holders," distracted driving was a already a big problem.
"We just keep inventing new ways to be distracted," he said. "Today distraction can range from a cell phone and texting to something as simple as daydreaming and not really paying attention to what’s going on.”
He said many other types of activities can also distract a driver, including eating, “adjusting the radio, scolding the child at the wrong time in the backseat to talking to a passenger, and it’s hard to see what kind of legislative strategy would address that effectively.”
Rader says technology, not the law, promises to be more effective at addressing safety.
“The systems on vehicles that are aimed at keeping drivers out of crashes could be a way to address distracted driving in a broader way," he said. “That means systems that are constantly monitoring the road ahead and can detect when a driver is about to get into a collision and warn him or her and bring their attention back to the road at a critical moment.
The Institute's 2014 report also found:
• Unsettled science regarding crash risks associated with phone use makes it difficult to study proposed and enacted laws.
• Police crash reports don't always identify crashes caused by distraction.
• Too many variables, such as compliance with laws and how strongly the laws are enforced, and differences in laws across state lines, make it difficult to study their effectiveness.
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the three main sources of driver distraction are
• Visual (eyes off the road)
• Manual (hands off the wheel)
• Cognitive (mind off the task)
Of these three, the Foundation concludes cognitive distraction has been the hardest to study because distractions may include activities like listening to the radio, listening to an audio book and having a conversation with a passenger in the car. Other distractions include using a cell phone to send or receive messages, talking on a cell phone, or using apps on a phone while driving.
Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com