Bans On Driving While On Cellphone Reduce Cellphone Use, But Not Accidents

One of the bigger news stories this week was the NTSB’s recommendation that state governments should ban all use of personal electronic devices (cellphones, iPods, etc) while driving, even ones with hands-free capability. The theory is that when you’re on the phone, your mind is busy with the conversation, and so you’re distracted even if your hands are free. The natural response to this is to ask if passengers and babies should be banned from cars too, but they say talking to a passenger will still be tolerated: since they’re part of the shared experience, a passenger will stop talking in a dangerous situation and maybe even alert the driver to potential hazards. But of course, talking on the phone with it in your hand is ludicrously dangerous, and texting! — you might as well just be the devil for doing something that menacing. The data, however, would beg to differ.

The accident behind the NTSB's electronics ban recommendation


The NTSB cites the cause of its recommendation as an accident from August 2010 in which a school bus ran into another school bus that had crashed into a pickup truck that had crashed into a semi that had slowed down due to construction; the pickup truck driver was killed, as was a high school girl on the first bus; dozens were also injured. The pickup driver had sent and received 11 texts in 11 minutes prior to the accident, with the last one having come in just before he crashed, so what happened is clear: he got the text, looked at it, missed the semi slowing down, and crashed into it. Ergo, we should ban all electronic devices.

But then again, why were the two buses following so close behind the pickup truck that they couldn’t have stopped in time or avoided it? The NTSB has been teaching the two-second rule for years, to prevent these types of accidents. And even if the pile-up was all the pickup driver’s fault, isn’t it a bit of an overreaction to ban all electronics due to one accident? It’s reminiscent of grade school, when the teacher is writing on the board with her back to the class, and because Billy throws a wad of paper at her, everyone gets punished. Or when one idiot tries to blow up a plane with bombs in his shoes, and then billions of people have to take their shoes off at the airport.


“But wait,” you say, “it’s not a punishment — it actually is dangerous to text and drive, so it’s a safety measure, for our own good.” That’s true, and texting is not alone; there are interminable examples of distracted or impaired driving: driving while eating, driving while the baby’s crying, driving while old, driving while sleepy, driving while putting on makeup, driving while tuning the radio, etc, etc, ad nauseam. Given how hard it is to enforce bans on the vast majority of these activities, and how creative people are at coming up with more, is it really worthwhile to try to specifically ban every one of them?

The auto insurance industry, which has a clear financial interest in reducing accidents, set up an Institute for Highway Safety in 1959. They released a report (PDF) in September of 2010 on the effects of driving while texting (DWT). It found that crashes actually went up slightly in states that had enacted a ban on DWT, possibly because it’s even more dangerous to drive while hiding the fact that you’re texting. It also said that “texting bans failed to produce a detectable reduction in crash risk,” and bans on specific driver distractions do not work: drivers will always find some novel distraction — even in a world without electronics — because, and this observation wasn’t in the report, the vast majority of the time, driving is really, really boring. (More highlights from the report are reproduced further below.)

The report also mentions that somehow, even though texting while driving is obviously dangerous, and texting has increased substantially in the past decade — about 18% of all drivers text while driving; almost 50% of college-age drivers, — car accidents have not increased to keep up with this new menace. In fact, the institute told NPR that “…with more and more people having phones in their cars and using them, the number of overall crashes has been declining.”

So it’s clear that the NTSB’s recommendation is sorely misguided, ineffective, and simply an overreaction looking for a scapegoat to a major accident. But the problem they’re trying to address is real: 40,000 people die every year in car accidents, and as the institute’s report said, 90% of them are due to driver error. That error will not go away as long as people keep driving cars. Therefore, what the NTSB should really recommend is a ban on driving, the minute Volkswagen, GM and Toyota come out with driverless cars.

If you haven’t seen Sebastian Thrun’s TED Talk on Google’s driverless car, it’s a good way to spend 20 minutes:


Some highlights of the conclusion from the insurance industry’s report:

Insurance collision loss experience does not indicate a decline in crash risk when texting laws are enacted. Rather, there appears to have been a small increase in claims in the states enacting texting bans, compared to neighboring states.


This unexpected consequence of banning texting suggests that texting drivers have responded to the law, perhaps by attempting to avoid fines by hiding their phones from view. If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it.


The results of this study seem clear. In none of the four states where texting bans could be studied was there a reduction in crashes. […] If the goal of texting and cellphone bans is the reduction of crash risk, then the bans have so far been ineffective. Bans on handheld cellphone use by drivers have had no effect on crashes (HLDI, 2009), as measured by collision claim frequencies, and texting bans may actually have increased crashes.


In four states, texting bans failed to produce a detectable reduction in crash risk, despite the geographic dispersion of these states and their controls. It is unlikely that uncontrolled covariates are confounding all the results. This is similar to the previous study, showing that hand-held cellphone bans have not affected crash risk in four different states.


These results indicate that distracted driving crashes are a complicated issue unlikely to be affected greatly by laws banning only one or another potential distraction. Distracted driving has long been a major contributor to the motor vehicle crash problem in the United States. In 1979, a report on the “Indiana Tri-Level Study” concluded that “driver error” had been the proximate cause of 9 out of 10 crashes investigated


The long history and ubiquity of distracted driving crashes, coupled with the current findings, suggests that public policy that focuses on only one source of distraction (for example, cellphone conversations or texting) may fail simply because it doesn’t recognize that drivers always are subject to distraction. Taking away cellphones may result only in drivers defaulting — even unintentionally — to new (or old) forms of distraction.


From The Institute of Highway Safety (PDF), via NPR


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