Editor's Note: Two New Laws Could Have Unexpected Consequences

Jan 1, 2014

Dana Heupel
Credit NPR Illinois
Two of the laws that take effect this month affect motorists in Illinois. One is apparently designed to make driving safer; the other would seem to make it more dangerous. According to research, however, the predicted results might surprise you.

One new law is the ban on using handheld cell phones while driving. Before this month, motorists in Illinois were prohibited from using handheld cell phones in Chicago and several other cities under local ordinances, along with places such as highway construction zones, though you’d never know it. Now, the ban on handheld phones extends statewide for everyone, and drivers younger than 19 will still be prohibited from using any cell phones, including hands-free technology. Violations will merit a $75 fine for the first time, and the fines will increase for repeat offenses. Three violations in a year could result in the loss of driving privileges.

Illinois joins 11 other states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands in forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Forty-one states — including Illinois — along with D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, ban texting while driving.

Although texting while driving should certainly be forbidden, it’s a shame that the cell phone ban has to be enacted. (And let’s hope it has better success than the texting ban, which I see violated nearly every day on my commute to and from work at the University of Illinois Springfield.) Talking on the cell phone could be relatively safe if drivers would just use common sense, such as not doing it in heavy traffic or not carrying on long and involved conversations. But it’s obvious that they haven’t — and won’t.

Instead, drivers who want to chat on their cells will be forced to use hands-free devices, such as speaker phones or wireless headsets, while weaving their way through traffic on the state’s highways. The problem is, according to a 2012 white paper from the National Safety Council, “more than 30 research studies and reports by scientists around the world that used a variety of research methods to compare driver performance with handheld and hands-free phones … show hands-free phones offer no safety benefit when driving. Conversation occurs on both handheld and hands-free phones. The cognitive distraction from paying attention to conversation — from listening and responding to a disembodied voice — contributes to numerous driving impairments.”

The National Safety Council report continues: “Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time. In reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks — performing only one task at a time. … For example, a person who is talking on a cell phone while driving has a brain that’s dealing with divided attention. The brain is overloaded by all the information coming in. To handle this overload, the driver’s brain will not encode and store all of the information. Some information is prioritized for attention and possible action, while some is filtered out. The driver may not be consciously aware of which critical roadway information is being filtered out.”

So why would legislators and the governor opt for hands-free devices if research shows they’re not any safer? It’s the politically popular thing to do, of course. Drivers who care — and many don’t, willing to accept higher risks so they can continue to jabber away while speeding down the highway — haven’t read the studies and intuitively believe that hands-free phones are safer because they keep motorists’ eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. So it’s a way for politicians to appear as if they’re doing something to keep drivers and passengers (read “voters”) safer when they really aren’t, while dramatically lessening the danger of ticking them off enough that they will vote them out of office because of this single issue.

Speeding down the highway because of a politically popular decision brings us to the second new law: increasing the speed limit on rural interstate highways from 65 miles per hour to 70.

Research weaves all over the road on this, with the main area of agreement in many studies appearing to be whether all traffic is traveling at the same speed (safer) or at different speeds (more dangerous). But researchers acknowledge that determining whether increasing speed limits by 5 mph makes driving more dangerous is influenced by too many factors, such as the volume of traffic, the presence of enforcement and the fact that the vast majority of drivers ignore the posted speed, anyway.

We all have witnessed that posted speed limits are essentially meaningless in actually controlling speeds. A recent Chicago Tribune report clocked cars on metro area tollways and found that depending on which roadway was measured, 91 to 98 percent of drivers exceeded the 55 mph speed limit. The average speed ranged from 66 to 70 mph. Some researchers suggest that motorists’ thorough disregard for speed limits began when the national maximum speed limit was set at 55 mph in 1974 — a move designed to save gasoline, not to make highways safer. 

A study prepared for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and presented at the National Forum on Speeding in 2005 cited other research that found “the risk of a car driver being killed in a crash increased with increases in speed.” The presentation also concluded, “The overwhelming majority of evidence suggests that reductions in speed limits reduce vehicle speeds and crashes; increases in speed limits increase speed, as well as crashes.

Other studies, however, appear to contradict that notion. For instance, a 2008 study by Purdue University found that raising the speed limit from 65 to 70 on Interstate 65 in Indiana did not increase the probability of fatalities or severe injuries. “Everybody expects that when you increase the speed limit, injuries and the severity of injuries are going to increase, but that hasn't happened on the interstate highway system in Indiana,” Fred Mannering, a professor of civil engineering, said in a Purdue news release.

So it’s just not clear whether increasing the speed limit to 70 mph on some interstate highways will make driving more dangerous, although it apparently will increase gasoline consumption in Illinois. According to www.fueleconomy.gov, there’s a 7.5 percent decrease in vehicle gas mileage for every 5 mph above 50 mph. But that’s a separate issue.

In the face of so much research with so few overall conclusions, perhaps there’s nothing more to do than to drive at the speed at which you feel safest while continuing to heed comedian George Carlin’s words of wisdom: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

Illinois Issues, January 2014