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Phones in the fast lane: Investigating how effective Alabama's texting and driving ban is

Updated: Feb. 13, 2017 at 4:29 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - We've all done it, and if we're honest, probably sometime in the last week or two: texting while we drive.

That's been against the law in Alabama since 2012, but we wanted to know if that ban was really working to cut down on distracted driving accidents.

We got requested accident statistics from several cities and statewide and found some disturbing trends. Vestavia Hills was one of the first cities in the state to ban texting, but their total number of accidents has gone up every year since 2012.

Vestavia Hills accidents
2012: 800

2013: 887

2014: 819

2015: 922

2016: 921 (incomplete)

The same is true in Hoover and Jefferson County according to Hoover police and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

Hoover Total accidents

2012: 3,103

2013: 3,120

2014: 3,220

2015: 3,488

Jefferson County accidents

2012: 104

2013: 130

2014: 141

2015: 168

2016: 176

Those cities don't break out numbers on how many crashes were caused by distracted driving, but the Center for Public Safety at the University of Alabama does and here's what they found.

Year PCC= Distracted by Use of Electronic Communication Device
2009 469
2010 1,134
2011 1,171
2012 1,190
2013 1,113
2014 1,323
2015 1,390
2016 *1,586

*Estimated since 2016 records are not finalized yet.

You can see the number of distracted driving accidents actually dropped slightly in the first full calendar year after the texting ban became law, but it's jumped every year since.

State statistics keepers warn these numbers aren't telling us how big the problem really is.

"It can't tell us the magnitude of the problem because we know distracted driving numbers are higher than what the actual reports show," says Rhonda Stricklin, Associate Director at the Center for Advanced Public Safety. "For one thing, everyone who texts and drives does not get caught, everyone who texts and drives does not crash, and if they are in a crash it may not be recorded or reported by the officer as a distracted driving crash because the officer has to know that, there has to be some proof."

So if we're not even seeing the full extent of the problem, and the number of distracted driving accidents goes up every year in spite of this ban, it clearly isn't working. Right? Not so fast, says Stricklin.

"You can't say the ban's not working. There's no way to show you this number of crashes were prevented, this number of lives were saved, but we know that's got to be the case, and how many lives does it take? I think if the law's saved even one life, one serious injury, prevented one person from being paralyzed, then it's been a good law," she said.

"Obviously you don't have the statistics for accidents that don't occur, you only have statistics for accidents that do," said Vestavia Hills Police Lt. Brian Gilham. "But all in all, giving some teeth to the issue, giving law enforcement the opportunity to address it, I think, it's gotta have some positive impact."

We asked Gilham why Vestavia Hills police officers had only written 91 citations for texting and driving since 2012.

Lt. Gilham says proving a driver is texting can be hard to do, but catching the results is much easier.

"Oftentimes what brings your attention to them is improper lane usage, swerving, sitting still at a green light, those type of things are all things that would typically draw an officer's attention," Lt. Gilham said. "So chances are the vast majority of citations are issued for the violation, the moving violation, rather than the texting itself."

Here are some apps you can download to prevent you or your child from texting while driving:

Cell Control: https://www.cellcontrol.com/

Drive Safe Mode: http://drivesafemode.com/

Live 2 Txt: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.call.disconnect&hl=en

You can learn more fromthe Center for Advanced Public Safety's site on distracted driving in Alabama:

http://www.safehomealabama.gov/SafetyTopics/DriverIssues/DistractedDriving.aspx

And here are new national statistics on how big this problem remains: https://www.distraction.gov/stats-research-laws/research.html

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