Common Tread

Study finds that cell phone restrictions save motorcyclists' lives

Jan 08, 2019

Everyone who rides a motorcycle on the street recognizes the increased threat of distracted drivers in recent years. Governments have recognized that problem, too, and nearly all states have passed some kind of laws restricting handheld cell phone use and texting. Do those laws help? Specifically, do they make motorcyclists safer?

Two college professors, Gulcin Gumus of Florida Atlantic University and Michael T. French of the University of Miami, decided to look at government statistics over an 11-year period, from 2005 through 2015, to try to answer that question. Previous studies had not shown a strong relationship between overall traffic fatalities and laws restricting handheld cell phone use and texting, but Gumus and French thought the story might be different for motorcyclists, who are more vulnerable to distracted driving.

It's not hard to guess where the idea came from. French is an avid rider, with three BMWs he uses for touring, street and off-road riding. Think about a common crash caused by distraction: A driver looking at a phone doesn't see the red light ahead and plows into the back of a stopped vehicle. If that stopped vehicle is a car, there may be a lot of damage but not necessarily a fatality. If it's a motorcycle? A rider easily could get killed. So reducing those kinds of crashes may not make a big difference in overall fatalities, but it could make an important difference for the small minority of us who ride.

Spoiler alert: Gumus and French found that the laws are effective in reducing motorcyclist deaths.

The rise of cell phone restrictions

The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, combined the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's traffic fatality statistics with data on state laws restricting the use of handheld cell phones and texting to see what relationships could be found, specifically with motorcyclist fatalities.

To start, the study classified state laws into four categories:

  • Strong: Primary enforcement of bans on both handheld cell phone use and texting for all drivers.
  • Moderate: Primary enforcement of either a ban on handheld cell phone use or texting for all drivers.
  • Weak: Secondary enforcement of a ban or a ban that applies only to novice drivers.
  • None: No restrictions on handheld cell phone use or texting.

The study period covers a time in which the issue first came into the spotlight. In 2005, 45 states had no restrictions and no states had a "strong" law. By 2015, only two states had no restrictions and 14 states fell into the "strong" category.

Other studies have identified a lot of factors that affect the number of traffic fatalities, ranging from ones we riders would clearly think of, such as temperature and precipitation, to ones we might not think of, such as the unemployment rate. To focus on the impact of cell phone restrictions, the researchers controlled for those and other variables, including population, vehicle miles traveled, and more.

The bottom line: "strong" laws reduced motorcyclist fatalities by 8.8 percent and "moderate" laws reduced motorcyclist fatalities by 5.5 percent. Looking at motorcyclist fatalities in multi-vehicle crashes only, those numbers go up to 11 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively.

To get an idea of what that means in terms of lives, Gumus and French looked at the numbers of motorcyclist fatalities in 2015 in the 36 states that do not have "strong" laws and applied those percentage reductions. If all 50 states had "strong" laws, about 173 fewer riders would have died in 2015, they estimated.

Why it matters to motorcyclists

There are a few things we know, if we ride much on the street. We've all seen that the threat from distracted drivers has increased, not just to motorcyclists, but also to other vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and bicyclists. All of those groups are small minorities, however, compared to the number of cars on the road. And since restrictions on handheld cell phone use and texting have not had a significant impact on fatalities for people in cars, it's easier for opponents to argue the restrictions aren't worthwhile.

(The laws may reduce overall crash injuries, even if not fatalities, but studies usually look at fatalities because of the NHTSA tracking of traffic deaths and because it's simpler — either you're dead or you're not, while injuries vary tremendously and may not even be captured in official stats if there is no hospitalization.)

Gumus and French have done the rest of us a service by focusing on motorcyclists and showing that restrictive laws do pay off. They specifically emphasize that this is a way policymakers can make a difference, noting that motorcyclists account for 0.6 percent of vehicle miles traveled but 14 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities. Laws restricting cell phone use may result in just a tiny blip in the statistics for the overall population, but for those of us who ride, the difference is real and could be an issue of life or death.