Nudges needed to make cell phone driving bans work
Increasingly, states are banning drivers from using handheld cell phones, but that doesn’t mean people are listening. With little knowledge or enforcement of the bans in some states and no insurance penalties for many drivers, it’s not clear whether the laws are much of a deterrent.
Cell phone bans are becoming more popular as the evidence mounts that driving while holding a cell phone and talking increases increases driver distractions, which leads to more wrecks. More enforcement would obviously help. As it stands at least eight states have what is called a “secondary law,” which means they do not allow police officers to stop a driver for violating the cell phone ban unless they have a prior reason for pulling the driver over. That means in Oregon a driver can cruise by a cop while talking on a phone in plain view, and as long as she is under the speed limit and stopping at red lights, she can’t be pulled over and cited. No wonder the laws aren’t having much of an effect.
New Jersey was one state that began with a watered down secondary law in 2003, and switched to a stronger “primary” law this spring that allows officers to cite cell phone violators who are otherwise obeying driving rules. How much of a difference did it make? Police wrote 1,400 tickets during the first five years of the law’s existence. When the new stronger version took effect, they wrote 13,000 in the first month.
Enforcement, with or without strong laws, can be creative. Here in Chicago, the police used a terrific “sting” operation to catch drivers who do not stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, that could be adapted to cell phone users. Officers dressed as civilians and stepped into two busy Chicago crosswalks. The catch was that the police announced exactly when and where the stings would take place. More than 100 people missed the media blitz.
That drivers are violating the cell phone laws is an interesting statement in itself. It might suggest that social norms around cell phone usage are not as clear or widely agreed upon as they are around other behaviors like not taking wood from rare petrified forests. It might also suggest that norms around cell phones are too weak to count on for self-enforcement, similar to the problems companies face with conflicted consumers who tell survey researchers they want, say, green products, but routinely buy non-green alternatives because they also want affordable prices. Indeed, conversation etiquette in public spaces has been a gripe since cell phones went mainstream, and overhearing inappropriate or annoying conversations is as common as ever.
If so, a social norms awareness campaign may not be the right strategy for the ignored cell phone laws. Perhaps a technological nudge is in order. There is one bit of good news (if you can call it that) about cell phone violators. Teenagers are the biggest culprits. According to a 2005 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost twice as many 16-24-year-olds held cell phones to their ears as 25-69-year-olds (10 percent for teens, compared to 6 percent for the others). A phone that stopped working inside a moving car would fit the bill, but would obviously be unpopular among moms, dads, and anyone who talks on the phone while they ride as a passenger in a taxi or someone else’s car. Would parents be willing to buy such a phone for their teen, though? Teens in cars with cell phones, even when they are just passengers, are distracting enough. Cell carriers could sell the phones as part of special family packages. Mom and dad would use the full-range phone; the kids would use the restricted version. This is just one technological nudge possibility. Other ideas from readers are welcomed.