Tag Archives: bans

Cellphone Use Does Not Cause More Car Crashes

More research has come out against the common belief that being on your phone while driving will make you more likely to crash a car. This time, they took advantage of the cellphone call spike that happens at 9pm on weekdays, which is when it generally becomes free to place calls: if talking on the phone led to more crashes, then there would also be a spike in car accidents just after 9pm. There was no such thing.

Crash Rate for California from 8pm to 10pm in Preperiods (1995 to 1998) and Postperiods (2005) (Monday to Thursday)

In lab simulations, it’s been shown that any kind of cellphone use (talking hands-free or not, texting, etc) is always more impairing than driving while drunk or high on marijuana. Real-life data does not seem to support the lab results, though. In their paper (PDF), the researchers also brought up two important points that we’ve seen before:

  1. Despite the exponential increase in cellphones over the past two decades, car crashes haven continued to decrease
  2. Laws banning cell phone use have no effect on accidents

Cellular Ownership and Crashes Per Vehicle Mile Traveled in the United States for 1988 to 2005

It’s also worth mentioning another study from 2012 showing that bad drivers will always drive badly: if they can’t be distracted by cell phones, they will find or make another distraction to keep them from being bored. Thankfully, self-driving cars are just years away at this point.

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From Carnegie Mellon University (PDF), via Slashdot

Nerdy Ways To Get Around Giant Soda Bans

New York City’s giant soda ban was supposed to go into effect tomorrow, but a judge today banned the ban, citing both the regulatory overreach of the city’s health board, and the ridiculousness of a ban that has loopholes as big as the sodas of which it tries to rid us. However, this is hardly going to be the last word on the issue — the city promised to appeal — so here are some interesting ways to still get your fix, in case the worst does happen:

Giant soda hacks

A Klein Bottle is a theoretical surface that cannot exist in our three-dimensional universe.

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From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Smoking Bans Will Cause Healthcare Costs To Rise Even More

NPR has an article highlighting two studies which show that indoor smoking bans have a big effect on people’s health:

  • The first study focused on a Minnesota county that banned workplace smoking and found that heart attacks dropped by a third within a year and a half of the ban
  • The second one was a meta-study which concluded that smoking bans were likely the reason for a drop in heart attacks and strokes by a sixth and of lung diseases by a quarter.

Photo by RawMotion

As we saw before, heart attack, cancer, lung disease and stroke are the top four causes of death in America, and together are responsible for 57% of fatalities. Smoking is a factor in all of them. Politicians and anti-smoking advocates are quick to point out not only the public health benefits of smoking bans, but also the financial savings due to all the health care that’s not being provided anymore. (The same holds true for food taxes and bans, like Hungary’s junk food tax.) At first blush, that makes sense, because if people aren’t having heart attacks and strokes, they won’t need as much care. And in the short-term, that may be true. But what is often forgotten is that everyone grows old, and aging is far worse for your health than smoking: over their entire lifetime, a smoker’s healthcare is estimated to cost about 326,000$, but because the non-smoker will live longer, their bill will run 417,000$ — 28% more.

Therefore, it’s crucially important for everyone to realize that in this age of health and budget consciousness, the two goals of living longer and spending less on healthcare are very much at odds with one another. Without any improvement to the health status of the population, healthcare costs are predicted to increase even beyond the currently oppressive levels. Almost half of our government expenses are currently used by two agencies specializing in geriatric care: Social Security Administration and Department of Health and Human Services, which includes Medicare. With half of the states in the union having already enacted comprehensive smoking bans, those agencies’ budgets will only need to go up, and eventually, most of the government’s function will be simply to care for the elderly.

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From The Archives of Internal Medicine and Circulation, via NPR

The NYC Big Soda Ban Is Really Toothless

Filmmaker Casey Neistat made an interesting video explaining New York City’s proposed ban on sodas over 16 oz. At first glance, sodas at most fast food restaurants will be banned since, with some exceptions, most small sodas are somehow still over that size. The large ones are sometimes four times over the allowed size. But, the ban has a few caveats:

  • It only applies to restaurants that the city regulates. Fountain drinks at stores like 7-Eleven are not covered by the ban. Or you can buy a two-liter of Coke at Duane Reade and put a straw in it.
  • It only applies to sugar added by the vendor: you can still pour all the sugar you want into an unsweetened iced tea, coffee, or whatever.
  • It doesn’t apply to beverages containing more than 50% milk, so sugary lattes of any size are still fair game.
  • And of course, you can always buy three 16oz sodas and drink them one after the other, or even all at once.

So in effect, the only thing the ban does is to make it slightly harder for people to buy a lot of soda. What’s the point of it then? According to Mayor Bloomberg, it’s to educate people. Which begs the question of why laws are being used to educate people, rather than maybe a public health campaign. It’s kind of like banning unprotected sex to educate people about social diseases. Unfortunately, even though traditional means of public education have been proven to work quite well, more and more we see politicians passing morality laws in an effort to be our mom: they don’t just tell you that your choices are bad for you (not anyone else), but also add a penalty or ban, because the nanny state can’t trust you to make your own decisions about your own life.

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Turns Out Bad Drivers Drive Badly Even Without Cellphones

Ban-happy politicians, who want to look tough on whatever inconsequential hot-button issue is in the news, have been passing laws about phones and driving for years now: no talking without a headset, no texting, no kaleidoscopes. So it was a big surprise when the auto insurance industry itself figured out that these bans had absolutely no effect on accidents; oh, except that they actually caused slightly more crashes. It was even more perplexing when it came out that even driving while talking on the phone with a hands-free phone made people’s reaction time twice as slow as drunk drivers‘, and even slower than drivers high on pot. Since cell-phone use has skyrocketed over the past decade, the data essentially showed that we have millions more “drunk drivers”, yet no more accidents to show for it.


Some people just don't care. Photo by Marcelo Braga.


This, of course, sent many short-sighted policy makers scratching their heads: “what do you mean our easy fix didn’t work? We can legislate whatever behavior we want, and clearly, cell phones are the root of all driving evil! And drinking.” Well science has finally given us the answer: a new study shows that cell-phone drivers just don’t care about driving safely. Cell phones are banned? That’s ok, they’ll eat, or shave, put on makeup, read the paper, or whatever isn’t banned. If they even care about the bans in the first place, since they’re pretty hard to enforce.

But the people that do care about safety, they voluntarily ban their own cell phone and makeup use while driving, and focus on the road. So once again — along with drug use, smoking, trans fats bans and others — we have an issue about which people are in need of education, but instead of doing that, politicians turn to legislation under the misguided belief that good behavior can be legislated via morality laws. This, in spite of centuries of history showing that the only thing that works is education, and that consequently, the morality laws only work in as far as they educate people — but they serve as no deterrent for those who, once educated, simply don’t care. For the rest, they just make that education come with a civil fine or criminal price tag. And for the ones that don’t care, the best thing we can do to prevent them getting on the road is to bring self-driving cars to the market as soon as possible.

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From Science, via Slashdot

Buckyball Magnets Are Now Banned Too

Buckyballs are very strong rare-earth magnets in the shape of a ball. They’re incredibly fun, and can be used for all kinds of neat tricks, including making an electric motor using only Buckyballs, a battery, and a wire. Yesterday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned them, because a dozen kids had eaten some over the past three years and required surgery. One of these was a 4-year old boy who ate three of them because he thought they were chocolate candy. (How did he mistake not one, but three of them, for chocolate? Was he inhaling them? Does he think chocolate is made of metal?) A 3-year old ate 37 of them.


The problem is the magnets are so strong that once inside the body, they are attracted to each other and can pinch intestines if two of them are in different parts of the digestive system. And 37 of them can form a giant metal rock in someone’s stomach.  Surprisingly, none of the kids died, and the magnets are marketed for ages 14 and up, have ample federally-required warnings on them, and are obviously made of metal which is not edible. There are somewhere around 60 million kids under 14 in the US, making 0.0000002% of them the cause for this ban. This is why we can’t have nice things.

The American Academy of Pediatrics praised the ban, and presumably would like to ban other products they list on their website as choking hazards: latex balloons, coins, marbles, toys with small parts, pen or marker caps, small button-type batteries, and medicine syringes. They also have a separate list for foods like hot dogs, nuts, grapes and raisins. No word on ammonia, cherries or pebbles. However, the CPSC — which is headed by three commissioners that answer only to the president — can’t ban many of those things anyway, since they only have jurisdiction over a narrow subset of products, which includes toys and coffee makers, but not food (regulated by the Department of Agriculture and the FDA), guns (ATF), cars (NHTS), uranium (NRC), and a lot of other things. If other agencies get ban-happy though, GeekMom from Wired has a list of seven things the feds could ban next.


The sometimes eerily prescient Onion predicted this twelve years ago, in an article entitled “Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids,” which you need to read because it hits the nail on the head:

Each of the deaths was determined to be the result of gross misuse of the toy, an incredibly cool device that could shoot both plastic missiles and long jets of water, as well as maneuver over the ground on retractable wheels.

“I know the overwhelming majority of American kids who owned an Aqua Assault RoboFighter derived many hours of safe, responsible fun from it,” CPSC commissioner Mary Sheila Gall said. “But, statistically speaking, three deaths stemming from contact with a particular toy constitutes an ‘unreasonable risk.’ Look, I’m really sorry about this. Honestly. But our agency’s job is to protect the public from hazardous products, even if those who die are morons who deserved what they got.”


From The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Reuters, via NPR and Slashdot

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Bloomberg Is Banning Giant Sodas In NYC

Somehow, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg got it into his head that the people of New York elected him to be their nanny — and maybe they have, since he’s been re-elected twice, and once since he banned smoking in some public places like parks, as well as banning trans fats in restaurants. Riding that wave, after a failed attempt to institute a state-wide soda tax, his latest idea is to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16oz in restaurants in the city. This largely applies to sodas, but also to sweetened juices and coffee drinks. It does not apply to diet drinks, even though those don’t seem to be good for us either. And while it’s quickly becoming clear that sugar, in the quantities we consume it, is toxic, it’s not clear at all if taking away freedom by instituting sales bans is an effective way of limiting consumption — even if it were the right thing to do.


Mayor Bloomberg with sodas and the equivalent amount of sugar cubes in them. Photo by The New York Times.


A few months ago, a group of scientists proposed treating sugar like alcohol, and this measure would certainly be a nod in that direction, but limiting the sale of alcohol has certainly not slowed down its consumption, and the same goes for cigarettes and illegal drugs. The only thing that has ever worked is education: most people like doing what’s good for them, but many don’t like being forced to make choices, good or bad. And as members of a free society, we should be able to make all the bad choices we want, as long as they don’t harm others.

Update, 1 June 2012: Jon Stewart had a funny reaction to the news that the ban would “combine the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect”:

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From The New York Times, via NPR

New Ban On Kaleidoscoping While Driving

To point out the absurdity of laws that (pointlessly) ban specific driving distractions like texting, The Onion has a short article about a new ban on kaleidoscoping:

TRENTON, NJ— Citing the nearly 1,500 deaths that occurred in the United States last year as a result of kaleidoscoping while driving, New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed legislation Friday banning the practice. “If you need to see complex geometric patterns made by colorful beads and glass shifting in front of your eyes while you rotate a cylinder, pull over to the side of the road first or, better yet, wait until you reach your destination,” Christie said after signing the bill known as Lisa’s Law, named for a teen killed when a kaleidoscoping driver crossed the center line and struck her car in 2009. “Studies have shown that kaleidoscoping while operating a motor vehicle is the equivalent of driving under the influence of four alcoholic beverages and two tabs of LSD. It simply isn’t safe.” Lobbyists for the kaleidoscope industry maintain their product is totally safe for drivers if they use the hands-free option.


A good analogy for bans on driving while texting would be bans on driving while drunk, which would miss all the other forms of intoxication that impair drivers, legal (e.g., Tylenol P.M.) or otherwise (e.g., PCP). The truth is, most of these laws, and many other “tough on <some danger>” laws, are just means for politicians to use to get elected. “Re-elect me, because I passed the texting ban. It’s virtually unenforceable and it didn’t save any lives, but… at least I did something while in office.”

From The Onion

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

Let There Be Incandescent Light

There’s been a rumor going around that the incandescent light bulb is going to be next on list of things the government’s been banning recently (clove cigarettes, caffeinated alcoholic beverages, trans fats, synthetic marijuana, etc) — all of course for our own good; we all know that we can make the right choices, but those other idiots need to have boundaries set by the nanny state, or else all hell will break loose. And so was the story of the regular light bulb, that it’s too inefficient and Uncle Sam is worried that we’re spending too much of our paychecks on electricity instead of something worthwhile, like stuff at Wal-Mart for example, so he’s not going to let us do that anymore.

The compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb Uncle Sam wants you! to use. Photo by Jose Ibarra


That part is actually true. The part that’s not true is that the incandescent bulbs are getting banned. What’s actually happening is that next year, new efficiency standards go into effect which current incandescents don’t meet. But, through the power of innovation, the corporations are going to make incandescent light bulbs that do meet those standards and supposedly look and feel the same as the ones we’ve had for 100 years. Still, people don’t buy that, so there’s a bill in the House called the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act of 2011  (BULB Act — I wonder if there’s a guy in Congress whose job it is to come up with clever acronyms) that repeals the offensive parts of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (PDF) and lets us again have the option to spend our money on huge electric bills. But fear not law mongers, the BULB Act is not expected to pass.