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Distracted driving rules aim to prevent accidents and auto insurance claims

New regulations on calling and texting behind the wheel will lower auto insurance costs and accident rates

This week, bans on texting while driving go into effect in Colorado and North Carolina, a safety measure that proponents hope will result in fewer accidents and auto insurance claims.

Distracted driving, as behind-the-wheel cell phone use has been dubbed, is a hot-button issue on the state, federal and corporate level. Colorado and North Carolina become the 20th and 21st states to ban texting while driving, a practice determined to severely limit drivers’ reaction time and accident avoidance skills. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found that texting behind the wheel increased unsafe driving 23 times over.

On January 1, three other states – Illinois, New Hampshire and Oregon – will make texting while driving illegal.

The Governors’ Highway Safety Association, a state road safety group, noted last month that only seven states and the District of Columbia banned texting behind the wheel in December 2008. The tide of states enacting distracted driving laws is not projected to slow in 2010, and new federal regulations may be signed into law, too. One proposal in Congress would withhold 25 percent of federal highway funding from states that did not criminalize distracted driving; another would offer $30 million in grant monies to incentivize lawmaking at the state level.

“I expect [that] an additional 20 to 25 states could pass [distracted driving] legislation within the next year,” said GHSA executive director Barbara Harsha.

The Colorado and North Carolina laws differ slightly in practice. Colorado’s fine is $50; North Carolina’s is $100. The Tar Heel State already bans texting among drivers under 18; the Centennial State will do so for the first time. And Colorado will make it illegal for under-18 operators to talk behind the wheel, something that North Carolina has already done.

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter said that he hoped the new law would teach young drivers safe habits. And Colorado State Patrol chief James Wolfinbarger suggested that the “electronics, gadgets and everything else” in cars “create much more of a problem, not only for young people, but for everybody.”

Texting and talking while driving are problems among teenage drivers, research shows. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that 8 percent of drivers aged 16 to 24 were observed talking on a cell phone, compared to 6 percent of 25- to 69-year-olds and 1 percent of drivers over 70. And new drivers are inherently susceptible to accidents; accident rates are highest among 16-year-old drivers.

But not all teenage drivers comply with bans, and they can be difficult to enforce. An Insurance Institute for Highway safety study of North Carolina teenagers found that the percentage of teen drivers using cell phones increased after a ban went into place, even though two-thirds of teenagers surveyed said they were aware of the law.

Some corporations prohibit texting while driving. Comcast and Sprint ban the practice among working employees, and Sprint created a voluntary pledge called “Don’t Drive Distracted” that encourages employees to “set a good example in [their] community and engage in safe driving practices.”

And, in a sign of increasing federal interest in distracted driving legislation, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski plan to collaborate on technological solutions to phone use among drivers.

Many foreign countries ban cell phone use behind the wheel. Most of Europe, Australia, Japan and some Canadian provinces have made phone use illegal. It can result in unsafe driving and cause accidents, leading to higher insurance rates – so more regulation in the U.S. is likely.

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Posted: December 2, 2009

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