Would a Texting Ban Make Arizona's Roads Safer?

For nine years running, state senators Steve Farley and Andy Biggs have been duking it out over a ban on texting while driving.

Farley, who's authored a proposal annually since 2007, insists that Arizona needs a law to pressure people to quit texting behind the wheel -- a habit that's comparable to driving drunk. While 84 percent of drivers agree it's perilous, according to a recent report from the AAA Foundation for Safety, about three in 10 people still do it.

"We need to strengthen the cop in all of our heads," the Democrat from Tucson says. "People won't stop until they know they're in danger of getting busted."

See also: -Arizona Ban on Texting While Driving Proposed for the Eighth Year in a Row

Biggs, on the other hand, maintains that there already are enough driving laws on the books to deter people from shooting off messages mid-lane change.

"Laws specifically prohibiting texting while driving ... are virtually unenforceable," the Gilbert Republican says. "It is the other driving laws that allow the police to pull a driver over while texting."

Meantime, 44 states have made it illegal to text and drive under any circumstances, and researchers have been working hard to answer the question that's got the senators arguing: Do texting bans work?

New research from Texas A&M suggests they might. In a study due out in the American Journal of Public Health in May, Assistant Professor Alva Ferdinand discovered that states that instituted texting bans between 2000 and 2010 saw a 9 percent drop in hospitalizations for traffic-related injuries. Similarly, Ferdinand found, states with strong anti-texting laws experienced a 3 percent drop in traffic fatalities. Among novice drivers, ages 15 to 21, the reduction was even more significant: 11 percent.

Ferdinand only observed the effect, however, in states where police were empowered to pull over people primarily for messaging behind the wheel. States where officers can cite a driver for texting only if they are stopped for another violation were no better off that states, like Arizona, that do not ban texting while driving. Neither observed significant change.

"With a primary ban, law enforcement is paying more attention, and people are aware of that so they change their behavior," Ferdinand stated.

Other studies, though, have come to the opposite conclusion.

A 2009 national telephone survey, for example, found that drivers across the country texted at roughly the same rate -- regardless of whether or not their state had deemed it illegal. A number of state studies observed a drop in use right after the announcement, but observed that people quickly returned to old habits.

"Right now the literature is pretty mixed on the effectiveness of these laws," said Dan Kaffine, an associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder. He analyzed accident rates in the six months before and after California enacted a ban on driving with a hand-held mobile phone.

"I was shocked that we didn't find any evidence of improvement," he said.

Still, he pointed out, "As far as I know, no one has found an increase in accidents because a state passed a texting ban. From a public-policy perspective, I think most would say it's an easy call to err on the side of safety."

Except, apparently, in Arizona.

Farley won a little ground last week when the Senate Government Committee passed a watered-down version of his bill prohibiting the act of writing -- but not reading or receiving -- messages. But things are looking up for Biggs: To get the bill to the Senate floor Farley would need approval of two more committees by Friday and he's not even scheduled to get a hearing.

Of course, this doesn't mean Farley's done fighting for the year. He's got a history of creative politicking. Last year, he nearly got away with slipping the texting ban into an unrelated bill unnoticed.

"I have plans," Farley says. "I can't tell you about them because I need the element of surprise."

If that doesn't work, he says, there's always next year.

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart