Kathleen Louden

November 18, 2015

CHICAGO — A law banning the use of cell phones and texting for all drivers could have prevented 10,260 severe and moderate injuries from motor vehicle crashes and saved 95 lives from 2008 to 2012 in Mississippi alone, research suggests.

With stricter legislation, Mississippi could also have reduced medical costs to treat crash-related injuries resulting from distracted driving by $75 million during the same 4-year period, investigators estimate.

The findings were given to state legislators who were considering a bill that would broaden the state's restrictions on the use of mobile communication devices by drivers, said Amy Radican-Wald, MPH, from the nonprofit Center for Mississippi Health Policy in Jackson.

"We gave legislators, who were considering changing the law, objective evidence that distracted driving from cell phone use is a risky behavior that contributes to one out of 12 crash-related deaths in the state," she told Medscape Medical News here at the American Public Health Association (APHA) 2015 Annual Meeting.

Although the Center for Mississippi Health Policy does not lobby, Wald said that her team conducted the study to inform state policy.

"Past research shows that policies and laws targeting traffic safety risks, such as texting while driving, raise awareness of the danger of this behavior and lead to a change," she explained.

The investigators used a mixed-methods analysis of traffic and vital records for 2011 and 2012 and conducted interviews with stakeholders to estimate the financial and health impact of mobile device use while driving.

 
Texting takes your mind off driving, your eyes off the road, and your hands off the wheel.
 

"Nationwide and in Mississippi, distracted driving is a public health issue," Wald said. "Motor vehicle crashes are a leading, often preventable, cause of death and disability for people under age 45."

Mississippi has one of the highest death rates related to motor vehicle crashes in the country. In 2012, the rate of crash-related fatalities was 19.5 per 100,000 people in the state, which is almost twice the national average of 10.7 per 100,000, according to statistics published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

And in 2011, the cost of medical services to treat all injuries related to motor vehicle crashes in Mississippi was approximately $38.6 million, the investigators report. That year, more than 4500 people in the state sustained serious or moderate injuries in vehicular crashes.

Mobile devices are the culprit in most distracted driving crashes, Wald reported, and text messaging while driving is particularly dangerous.

"Texting takes your mind off driving, your eyes off the road, and your hands off the wheel," she said.

Despite warnings in the media about the dangers of this type of distracted driving, 660,000 American drivers use cell phones or electronic devices while driving at any given moment during daylight hours, a 2012 NHTSA survey showed.

Mississippi's Distracted Driving Bill

Mississippi passed a distracted driving bill, which was supported by the Mississippi State Medical Association, in April. The law went into effect July 1, making Mississippi the fifteenth state to prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving, and the forty-fifth state to ban text messaging for all drivers, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The law makes it a civil violation for anyone to operate a motor vehicle on a public highway while using a handheld wireless communication device for any purpose other than a voice-operated call. It replaces legislation that made it illegal only for school bus drivers and novice drivers to text and drive.

There is also a primary law enforcement provision, said Wald, meaning that police can stop drivers suspected of this moving traffic violation for that reason alone.

Research has shown that primary enforcement laws banning all drivers from texting are associated with a 3% reduction in traffic deaths in all age groups (Am J Public Health. 2014;104:1370-1377). Secondary enforcement bans reportedly had no significant impact on crash death rates.

Primary law enforcement will make it easier to ascertain which crashes involve cell phone use and texting, said Wald. She explained that law enforcement officials in Mississippi did not track the use of mobile devices in crashes before this July because, in most cases, such use did not violate the law.

Doctors' Group Backs Legislation

The Mississippi State Medical Association called for state legislation prohibiting texting while driving by all drivers and is satisfied with the new law, said Daniel Edney, MD, who is president of the association.

The association supported the law because distracted driving is a public health issue, said Dr Edney, who was not involved in the study.

"Studies have shown that the distraction caused by texting is the same as driving under the influence of alcohol," he said.

Dr Edney said he has heard no negative feedback from the public about Mississippi's tougher distracted driving restrictions. "They understand it makes sense, just as they did for the seat belt law."

"We hope all states will have these complete bans on texting while driving," he said.

 
We hope all states will have these complete bans on texting while driving.
 

Currently, only Montana has no statewide ban on texting for any drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, Arizona, Missouri, and Texas restrict only certain groups of drivers, such as beginners, from texting while operating a motor vehicle. On November 1, Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state to prohibit all drivers from texting while driving.

Wald is a member of the APHA Governing Council, but has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr Edney has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Public Health Association (APHA) 2015 Annual Meeting: Abstract 331169. Presented November 4, 2015.

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