Would a ban on electronic devices lower car insurance rates?

Chris Kissell

Portable technology is everywhere. Cellphone chatter, texting and web surfing are part of our moment-by-moment lives – even when we’re behind the wheel.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would like to see an end to such practices. Recently, the NTSB added the need to “eliminate distraction” – including banning drivers’ use of portable electronic devices – to its “Most Wanted List” of advocacy priorities.

“Those are issues that we choose to highlight for that particular year that are high priority,” NTSB spokesman Terry Williams says.

The NTSB first called for such a ban in 2011, urging prohibition of all non-emergency use of portable electronic devices – other than those designed to support the task of driving task – for all drivers in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The recommendation is intended to target the problem of distracted driving, which killed 3,092 people in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Ten percent of those killed were 15 to 19 years old.

A ban and your insurance rates

Would a ban on portable electronic devices lower car insurance rates?

Robert Passmore, senior director of personal lines at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group, says rates would come down only if the proposal genuinely reduced the number of accidents.

However, Passmore is skeptical that such a ban would work as intended. He says studies generally do not show a link between reducing use of electronic devices and reduced accidents.

For example, a Highway Loss Data Institute examination of crash data in 30 states (and the District of Columbia) that have banned cellphone use by drivers found there had been no increase in the frequency of collision claims as cellphone use had increased. 

In fact, accident rates have been slowly but steadily declining in recent years, despite increased use of electronic devices. Overall, the number of police-reported crashes in the U.S. fell 1.5 percent in 2011. Total crashes fell 1.6 percent in 2010 and 5.3 percent in 2009.

“The number of accidents keeps going down even as the use of these kinds of (devices) keeps going up,” Passmore says.

Traffic injuries and deaths also have fallen sharply in recent years. In 2011, nearly 32,400 people died in vehicle accidents, the lowest number since 1949, according to NHTSA.

Passmore says he understands why the NTSB is recommending the ban. “What the recommendation does do is make people more aware of the dangers of distracted driving,” he says.

But the official position of Passmore’s group is that state legislators and law enforcement officers should concentrate on measures that are more likely to reduce accident rates, he says. The Highway Loss Data Institute examined data in four states that prohibit texting by drivers. Its conclusion? “In none of the four states where texting bans could be studied was there a reduction in crashes,” the institute says.

Other distractions

Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says insurers generally are applauding the NTSB’s call to ban portable electronic devices. She thinks such a ban could cut the number of accidents in the long run.

However, Worters agrees with Passmore that other distractions pose an equal or even greater danger. Such distractions include:

  • Talking to passengers.
  • Eating and drinking.
  • Grooming (such as applying makeup).
  • Reading.
  • Using navigation systems.
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player.

Like Passmore, Worters says a key to lowering car insurance premiums is to continue to reduce accident rates. With that in mind, anything that places distracted driving in the spotlight is likely to help, she says.

“Greater education on driver distractions is key to a reduction in auto accidents,” Worters says. 

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