Is technology a better way to keep us from talking and driving? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says it could be, while it also cautions that talking-and-driving laws aren't always as effective or durable as legislators think.

In a release issued today, the IIHS says it's studied how drivers react in the long term, to laws banning handheld cellphone use. The insurance industry-funded research group studied drivers in two metro areas where handheld cellphone use has been banned—the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland in one group, and New York and Connecticut in the other. In both groups, the IIHS found that handheld cellphone use declined after laws banning their use were enacted.In both groups, however, the IIHS found drivers returned to talking on handheld phones while driving to some degree, in the months after the laws took effect. In the District of Columbia, a 2004 law against handheld cellphone use was followed by an almost 50-percent decline in usage while driving, and that decline has held steady since, despite more talking and driving in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. But in New York, where handheld phone use has been illegal since 2001 and in nearby Connecticut since 2005, usage dropped by 47 percent and 76 percent, respectively—then began to rise again.

Institute president Adrian Lund confirms that even though the IIHS has observed an overall drop in handheld cellphone use in those areas, the overall effect can't yet be measured in terms of safety. "Many drivers still use their hand-held phones, even where it's banned, and other drivers simply switch to hands-free phones, which doesn't help because crash risk is about the same, regardless of phone type," he said in a release issued today.

The study follows on a national distracted-driving summit by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which opened the debate on federal talking-and-driving laws being proposed. That summit cited a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that found in preliminary data, a threefold rise in accidents when drivers were dialing a phone, and a measurable increase in risk when talking. Texting, in other studies, could boost the risk to 23 times as high, as operating a vehicle with full attention.

National and state laws may be a growing movement, but patrolling is difficult—and could be the reason for the rebound in cellphone use, even where use has been banned."Police officers can see whether a driver is holding a phone to the ear, but it's going to be much harder to determine if a driver is sending a text message or talking on a hands-free phone," Lund points out. He adds, "Manual dialing and texting seem especially risky, but talking also involves crash risk, and drivers spend more time talking on phones than dialing."

The IIHS' solution may sound effective, but could both some drivers. The insurance group suggests technology that could block cell use while driving. Right now, the big technical hurdle is to allow passengers to talk while riding, while still blocking drivers from using their mobile phones in any way. Even that would leave the driver free to talk to passengers—or listen to entertainment, or eat, all forms of driver distraction that could be even more dangerous than cellphone use and driving.

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