Will the increase in texting while driving drive up car insurance

When Frank Ryan -- renowned plastic surgeon for celebrities such as Heidi Montag -- died in a car wreck in August, texting was apparently to blame.

The subject: His dog's hiking feats on the cliffs above Malibu, California.

One minute, Ryan reportedly was thumbing over his BlackBerry while behind the wheel. The next minute, his car went careening off the road, plummeting hundreds of feet to the ground in a fiery crash.

Ryan wasn't the first to (allegedly) perish from texting; over the years, the process of typing text messages on SmartPhones has been the cause of major and minor accidents alike. Perhaps the most famous of the bunch: The 2008 train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., that killed 25 people. Turns out the train engineer was texting when he should have been looking at a signal.

One would think that with a track record of this magnitude, texting would have a major impact on auto insurance premiums. On the contrary, however, experts say it's too early for such a connection to exist.

"We still don't know how many people are doing it," says Paula Gold, chief regulatory council for Plymouth Rock Assurance Corp., based in Boston. "We can't do much without that data."

There certainly is data to prove texting is dangerous. In 2006, Liberty Mutual Insurance Group conducted a survey with more than 900 teens from more than 26 high schools nationwide. The results showed that 37 percent of students found texting to be "very" or "extremely" distracting. A later study by the Automobile Association of America revealed that 46 percent of teens admitted to being distracted behind the wheel due to texting.

The most damning study came in 2009, when a report from the Transportation Institute at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University revealed that text-messaging had the greatest relative risk among "safety-critical" events.

This survey indicated that the risk of crashing while texting was 23.2 times as high as the risk of crashing without distraction.

In short, the report indicated texting was one of the biggest dangers on the road today.

A handful of states have responded to these reports with legislation prohibiting texting behind the wheel for all drivers. Currently, it's a citable offense in states such as California, Massachusetts, New York and Colorado, to name a few.

Other states, such as Texas and Louisiana, have banned it only for new drivers (an attempt to force compliance by those drivers who present the highest crash risk in general).

Still, as Gold suggests, major fallout in the auto insurance industry has yet to happen.

Gold, the attorney with Plymouth Rock, says that in her home state of Massachusetts, citations for violating cell phone laws are not "surchargable," meaning violations cannot affect insurance premiums.

What's more, she notes that until widespread data is available about the frequency with which drivers text behind the wheel, insurers likely won't be able to penalize customers for violations.

Of course laws against texting while driving will impact insurance premiums indirectly before that. In theory, any legislation that helps prevent accidents and keep drivers safer will cut down on the number of accidents in a particular area. This, in turn, should keep insurance premiums steady, or in some locations, actually help to reduce them a bit.

"Our business isn't about people having accidents, it's about insuring people when they do [have accidents]," says Gold. "Laws can change people's behavior; if these laws make the road safer, they're benefitting everyone, and that's the most important thing."

This article is provided by InsWeb.

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