PHILADELPHIA — Could state bans on texting actually be boosting accident rates?

That was the disturbing suggestion of a study presented Tuesday at a highway safety conference.

The surprising finding came from the insurer-sponsored Highway Loss Data Institute, whose researchers examined crash data from four states in the months before and after they enacted texting bans.

Rather than reduce collision losses, bans on texting appeared to trigger a small uptick in crashes in three of the four states – California, Louisiana and Minnesota – said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the industry group and its parent group, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The researchers said the study raised a question: If the laws simply didn’t help, why was there a rise in crashes?

Adrian Lund, president of the institutes, said the problem may be that drivers are suffering a dual distraction – first by the texting itself, and second by attempts to avoid being noticed.

“What they might have been doing was moving their phones down and out of sight when they texted, in recognition that what they were doing was illegal,” Lund said in a statement.

He said the result could be that drivers turned their “eyes further from the road and for a longer time.”

Rader said the data showed a particular rise in crashes among young drivers – the same 18- to 24-year-olds who surveys show “are most likely to text while driving” whatever state laws decree. About 30 states have totally banned texting while driving. Maine’s texting-while-driving ban applies only to novice motorists.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said the report was misleading. He says the bans are important in helping stop deaths from distracted driving, but states must enforce them and people must obey them.

The Highway Loss Data Institute study came on the heels of separate research that showed the growing dangers of texting while driving.

A study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health put some stark numbers on the risks of texting, which it said had apparently contributed to “an alarming rise in distracted driving fatalities.”

The study by University of North Texas researchers estimated that texting caused 16,000 U.S. fatalities from 2001 to 2007 in crashes that “increasingly involved male drivers driving alone in collisions with roadside obstructions in urban areas.”

Earlier studies by the insurance industry and others have shown that drivers’ cell phone use quadruples accident risks. Rader said the challenge was devising the right policy response.