Cell phones and driving; some science ignorance that kills

Keith says he not only doesn’t use his cell phone when driving (CWD), but doesn’t talk to people when they are driving.  Good for Keith, and the NTSB, which has recommended a flat ban on using cell phones while driving, hands-free or not. Our designated ‘conservative’ columnist, Debra Saunders, weighs in with one of her typically muddled attempts to turn conservatism into less government across the board, mixes up what’s really dangerous about driving while on the phone, and confuses “not CWD” with “outlawing CWD”. She did get me to find the HLDI study from two years ago that found an accident reduction effect in states that outlawed CWD but with low statistical significance, a result she upends into “[the study] found hands-free laws did not reduce the number of car crashes in California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.”

This is actually quite an interesting issue with superficially counterintuitive facts.  It’s not especially dangerous for a driver to chat with a passenger in a car, or to listen to the radio, or even to eat a sandwich with one hand (OK, maybe a slippery drooling Carl’s Jr. premium burger).  It’s obviously dangerous to be looking at a cellphone and texting or even dialing it (why do we still say dial such a device, and why is a circle with ten circles inscribed in it still an ideogram for a phone? but I digress) but dialing a handheld phone only takes a short time compared to the conversation, so it can’t be too important overall.

Indeed, the danger comes from the conversation, and a hands-free phone makes almost no difference. The distraction of a phone for a driver is in fact the same as the distraction from a pet or a child who demands attention without knowing what’s happening on the road, and importantly, (i) who you know doesn’t know what you’re attending to but (ii) has a strong subconscious claim on your attention whether by affection or courtesy or both.  An adult in the car can see out the windshield and understand the situation, and you know he can, so you don’t need to explain a sudden silence while you plan to steer around the mattress in your lane.  The radio’s feelings won’t be hurt if you stop paying attention for a minute.  But your conversational phone partner has none of the subconscious cues needed to let you comfortably, and instantly, tune into traffic exigencies.  So, handsfree CWD is as bad as handheld, or very close. It’s not science, but I feel distinctly impaired using a handsfree phone behind the wheel and will pull off the road if I have to be on the phone. Conjecture: handsfree (voice recognition) outgoing texting is actually not dangerous, indeed I occasionally dictate correspondence in a car and don’t feel a bit impaired.  Maybe even incoming texts and emails if they’re delivered by synthesized voice? Could video skyping from the car be OK if the camera points through the windshield?

The press release for the HLDI study points out reasons why (i) outlawing (ii) handheld CWD didn’t make much difference.  First, laws are not always enforced or obeyed.  Second, these laws probably just drove people to use handsfree devices, especially as their distinction between handheld and handsfree implicitly gave approval to the latter.  If we get this right, and try to put a stop to all cellphone use in cars, the enforcement problem for handsfree phones is quite daunting.  I’m not sure we want the highway patrol trying to make out whether a driver alone in a car is talking while both vehicles are whizzing along.  I suppose the phone company could note phone use while the user is switching towers faster than walking speed, but that would pick up passengers using their phones, and jamming calls while the engine is running is a non-starter for several reasons (I think making a 911 call to report an accident or a drunk driver is just fine, dialing and all).

In the end, the law as NTSB proposes it is probably an important action certifying society’s judgment about the behavior, but actually reducing it depends on public education and social pressure of the kind Keith nicely applies to his friends.  Friends don’t let friends drive distracted, or friends don’t distract friends while they’re driving; that sort of thing.



Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

44 thoughts on “Cell phones and driving; some science ignorance that kills”

  1. So, in the interest of consistency, you are also willing to ban children from cars?

    I do get the impedance mismatch, of course. I just don’t understand why people are so focused on this.

    1. Because, statistically, cell phones are responsible for a significant fraction of fatal traffic accidents. In general, driving while distracted has joined alcohol and speeding as one of the leading causes of fatal and serious accidents.

      Note that being distracted by another occupant is also a serious problem. However, while we can eliminate cell phone usage without affecting a car’s usefulness, banning other people except the driver from cars is a fairly dramatic limitation.

      But yes, I minimize talking to my husband when he’s driving (other than helping him with stuff that would be even more of a distraction if he did it himself); likewise, he does not distract me when I’m driving (I really hate it when people want to conduct a conversation with me when I’m at the wheel). And our daughters know that when we’re driving, we’re busy and can’t attend to them.

      Human beings, in general, are pretty horrible at multitasking. Doing two things at once generally means not doing either as well as you could. It is not something you want to do too much of while operating a potentially lethal device such as a car that requires near-instant reaction times in critical situations.

      Of course, people also regularly overestimate their multitasking ability, just as they regularly overestimate how well they can drive while intoxicated.

      1. Because, statistically, cell phones are responsible for a significant fraction of fatal traffic accidents.

        Let’s be precise. The Mother Jones article you linked notes, “If you do, you’ll find that cellphones were implicated in 223 highway fatalities in 2010.” Follow the link in that article to the Washington Post article, and from there to the NHTSA press release and you will see that this is out of a total of 32,885 highway deaths overall. So cellphone use was responsible for 223/32,885 highway deaths in 2010, or 0.67%. I don’t think 2/3 of one percent can really be called “a significant fraction.

        Maybe we’re making way too much of this.

    2. During long road trips with three children in the back I have given thought to the varied social uses of duct tape.

      Worth noting that new technology, as it creates the new hazard of CWD, palliates the older risk from one´s dear children, now soothed by video games and iPods and tablets.

  2. I would suggest that part of the intense interest is the repeated news stories of fatal crashes in which the driver is reported as having been texting at the time. It may well be that cell phone use is not in of itself so problematic (it’s easy enough to snap, “hold on!” when you need to ignore a call for a moment — that should be enough of a cue to any reasonable caller), but for many people nowadays, cell phone use means texting – and hands-on texting requires an awful lot more attention than simple chatting.

  3. @Jamie #1: I just don’t understand why people are so focused on this.

    Ride a motorcycle on public streets for a while and get back to us on that. After a few near-misses with a phone-tard or two I think you’ll understand. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to take extreme evasive maneuvers to avoid being hit by someone with a cell phone in their hand.

    @FuzzyFace #2: but for many people nowadays, cell phone use means texting

    Not only that, but nowadays cell phone use also means surfing the internet, which requires even more attention.

    @Michael O’Hare #OP: actually reducing it depends on public education and social pressure

    Exactly. As you mentioned, outlawing this is unenforceable. We can only hope to reduce it with education and social pressure (if only we could teach this concept to the drug-warriors!). I like the PSA’s I see on TV about texting and driving, but they need to go further and show that ANY cell phone use while driving is DUI-scale dangerous. It would also be a good idea to illustrate just how STUPID people look in public when they drive distracted.

    This won’t get solved, however, until our cars are able to drive themselves. I hope I survive to see the day. The potential for improvement in safety and efficiency is enormous. Humans are such terrible drivers (on average) that we can’t be too far from the day when a computer can be trusted more than the average driver to safely navigate the roads and pilot a vehicle.

    1. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to take extreme evasive maneuvers to avoid being hit by someone with a cell phone in their hand.

      Precisely! You’ve just proved the point that CWD defenders keep making–hand-held while driving is a far more consequential problem than CWD in general. Having driven behind or across from people who nonchalantly take half an hour to make a left turn, I can sympathize. On more than one occasion I wanted to tell the drivers on the highway to shove their hand-held phones up their rear ends. So there is not much dispute there–at least not from me. But when you cross the threshold to all phones, you lose me.

      nowadays cell phone use also means surfing the internet, which requires even more attention.

      Again, texting and all other input-intensive activity on the phone is heavily dependent on handsets. Lose the handset and you lose texting and surfing. Then you lose your argument.

      they need to go further and show that ANY cell phone use while driving is DUI-scale dangerous.

      Nonsense! Driving while distracted is dangerous. Period. Phone conversation may be distracting, but things we can’t easily ban because they lack easily identifiable culprits are far more distracting. If you ban eating or drinking in the car, you’re going to have a revolt. People are addicted to their daily driving cup of joe even more than they are addicted to phones. Yet, spilling coffee on your lap or dipping that $100 tie into ketchup on your fries or the fake cheese on Egg McMuffin is far more distracting to DRIVING than anything phone conversations can offer. Children, especially those under 7, are deadly–they should ride in the trunk. Conversations with passengers may be OK to Michael, but, apparently, his passengers are not back-seat drivers–I find the constant suggestions of which road hazards I missed far more distracting than the actual hazards. Phone correspondents to not tell you turn the wrong way onto a one-way street. Have you ever driven next to or behind people who are trying to put on make-up, shave, read a newspaper, unfold a map? Then you know that phone conversations are not the problem (even if phones are). Besides, I’ve had two family members get into minor collisions because of tuning out while tuning in (listening to music on the radio). Yet, none of them got in trouble while using phones.

      The other issue is that I am not convinced that the science behind calls for cell phone bans is complete or accurate. The issue is not just how much influence a phone conversation has on the driver, but what fraction of driving time is affected, compared to other in-car hazards. We may know (according to NTSB) how many fatalities involved phones–both handheld and not. But we have absolutely no idea what the base rates are. The reason why the number of accidents and fatalities involving cell phones is going up may have little to do with distractedness and everything to do with the ever increasing base rate. If the ratio of hands-free-phone-involving fatalities to all users is not higher than the ratio of all fatalities to all drivers, then it’s time for the NTSB to STFU and let people drive. If there is a significant difference, then we can talk–but, for the moment, the issue is not rising incidence of the disease, but the improvements in diagnostic techniques. The problem? There is simply no easy way to collect that data. And, to make matters worse, we don’t know what fraction of time people use the phones when they do. And that’s before we get to enforceability issues.

      Sorry, Michael–as much as I like your posts, this one’s a dud. And, Freeman–really? DUI-scale dangerous? Lay off the weed while driving motorcycles, OK?

  4. That is the ultimate solution, and based on what I’m seeing in progress towards that, you could have cars that drive themselves hitting the market before the end of the decade.

    In the meanwhile, we really, seriously need to have a discussion about where the threshold is for restrictive legislation being justified. We’re talking here about perhaps a thousand deaths a year, tops. (And that’s attributing ALL of the blame to cell phones in cases where they were contributing causes.) If we banned everything that cost a thousand lives a year, we’d lead pretty sterile lives.

    If we’d done it in the last century? Probably progress would have ground to a halt. No cars, no aviation. That’s something to think about the next time you hear of somebody dying of some rare cause, and think, “There ought to be a law!”

  5. I know technical solutions are terribly wrong, but I could see a system that simply omitted handoffs and turned off texting for phones traveling above a certain speed. This would allow short conversations, but not longer ones. And the collateral cost of not having passengers be able to yak indefinitely on the phone would be counterbalanced by the fact that the passengers would no longer be distracting the driver.

    And it would ease investment requirements for rural extensions of cell systems.

    1. But why should passengers be banned from texting as well? Yet another solution that throws the baby out with the bathwater. Why not just ban driving, period. Road fatalities would go down to zero!

  6. Note that some states ban teenage passengers in cars driven by teenagers, after the accumulation of evidence that a group of kids in a car is much more dangerous than a teen driving alone or with an adult passenger.

    1. I think that all the bans on teenage ______ while driving are quite cynical. Yes, inexperienced drivers are more dangerous, but basically, policymakers get away with imposing grave restrictions on teenagers who drive because they can’t vote. (For instance, there’s no evidence at all that a teenager with .01 blood alcohol is driving impaired.)

      1. Cynical? Maybe. Unreasonable? No. The issue with teen drivers vs. inexperienced drivers is not merely driving experience, but decision-making experience. The point of absolute ban on drinking-and-driving for teenagers vs. 0.08 threshold for “adults” is that it sends a particular message–a message that is unfortunately lost on older drivers. Would banning all drinking for all drivers be reasonable? I think, from the point of view of messaging and fatality reduction, the answer is absolutely yes. From the point of view of reasonableness of intrusion, the answer is no. We make these borderline choices all the time, but refuse to admit it. It’s not just about science, but about acceptable losses. And the second point when it comes to teenage drivers is that we consider no losses acceptable–while older drivers dying at the wheel is sad and unfortunate, we consider teen fatalities to be far more devastating because they are considered premature. When you have a car packed with teens slam into a tree, killing several in the process, this is not considered to be an acceptable loss. Hence the rules–nothing cynical about that.

  7. Here’s a harm reduction approach the driver can use, directed to reducing the other party’s “strong subconscious claim on [the driver’s] attention whether by affection or courtesy or both.” 1) At the start of each call, inform the other party that you’re driving, and say out loud for all (including your subconscious) to hear, “I can chat for a minute if you’re OK with driving getting priority for my attention.” 2) Practice pausing your speech or interrupting the other person’s speech with some short phrase (“Hold on!”) interjected with polite authority. Do it at the slightest need, thus reclaiming your full attention for driving, reminding the other party that you’re driving, and reinforcing such pauses as normative behavior.

    As with harm reduction in general, even if this approach were shown to reduce risk per minute of phone conversation, evaluating its net impact would have to take into account whether and how much it increases the overall level of the risky activity or undercuts potential decreases of it.

    1. Wouldn’t an easier harm reduction approach be to not take the call at all?

      To be honest, this whole debate is a bit alien to me. I’ve never been tempted to take a call while driving (let alone make one), so it’s difficult for me to understand what makes people do just that.

      1. As I understand the terms, what you’re suggesting is called “abstinence,” not “harm reduction.”

      2. My primary reason for making a call while driving is “I’m going to be home in X minutes. The supercargo is sleeping/happy/sad/that screaming noise you hear in the background.” Primary reason for taking a call: “We’re out of Y; please pick some up or the next meal is doubtful.” But I realize I’m not the norm. (Other people I know, especially those who combine offspring with a job that has an automotive commute, appear to make and receive calls in their cars because it’s the only place/time they can speak privately to their friends.)

        The harm-reduction suggestion rely on the idea that the driver understands the danger, which to my mind is the problem right there.

        1. Hmm. If I were to either make or take a call while driving, I’d have to (1) get hold of my purse (which is usually in front of the passenger’s seat or on the backseat), (2) fish my cell phone out of the purse, (3) dial a number — before even talking. It’s simply always been so much easier and less risky for me to just pull over and do the aforementioned steps (plus any talking) while the car is stopped, so it has never occurred to me to do anything else.

          1. You seem to have technical difficulties. I need to do none of the three. (I either use a BT headset while driving or BT link with the car electronics–both of which require a single push of the button either on the headset or on the steering wheel.) I guess, that makes you inherently a more dangerous driver on the road than me. So, your cell phone use should be banned, but why should I suffer from your technical shortcomings?

          2. Why the personal attack? I haven’t advocated banning cell phone use (though, to be honest, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it).

            In this case in particular, I was merely describing why I, personally, am not and have not been using a cell phone while driving. I was not making any generalizations based on it. (I also happen to currently live in a country that does ban cell phone use while driving, but I didn’t behave any differently while living in America.)

            By the way, if you sincerely believe that hands-free use is safe, I fear that all existing scientific evidence disagrees with you.

          3. It was not intended as a personal attack. I was merely pointing out that we should not base our policy decisions on obsolete technology–and users of obsolete technology. As for your belief that I disagree with science, the rumors of scientific convergence on this issue are greatly exaggerated–just as they were in linking autism to infant vaccination and many other supposed truisms that have never been proved–including many that have been disproved.

            My position is not that there is no increase in risk in driving with hands-free phones, but that the risk 1) is not greater than from other contributing factors, such as children in back seats, radio, eating, etc. and 2) is acceptable. I also see deep methodological flaws in “scientific” claims about these risks. Texting while driving–or while walking, for that matter–is the top concern, followed by handheld phones (used by drivers). The current attitude toward cell phone use while driving among the risk-conscious resembles CSPI hysterics more than it resembles scientific discourse.

            You, on the other hand, confuse acceptable risks with “being safe”. These are not identical in any shape or form. Driving a car is an acceptable risk–for most. Crossing the street–any street–is an acceptable risk (unless you decide to use a “shortcut” that someone made by cutting chicken wire to get access to a high-speed highway–unacceptable risk, which is why the chicken wire is there to begin with). Texting while driving is or should be an unacceptable risk. Hand-free phone conversation is not in the same category. This is not at all the same as saying that all these things (except texting) are “safe”.

  8. This will not settle any questions about the issue, but it does seem to call for additional examination of the assumptions concerning calls while driving.

    Richard Young at Wayne State University reported in Real-World Personal Conversations Using a Hands-Free Embedded Wireless Device While Driving: Effect on Airbag-Deployment Crash Rate (Risk Analysis 2009;29:187-204) that the risk of an airbag-deploying crash during hands-free conversation (HFC) was 50.8 crashes per 100 million driver minutes and the risk of a crash during no HFC was 8.18 crashes per 100 million driver minutes. The relative risk of a crash during HFC was 0.62, with a 95% confidence interval between 0.37 and 1.05. In the same article, he references another naturalistic real-world study using video clips which reported a relative risk of 1.29 (905% CI, 0.93 to 1.90) for crashes during HFC. These relative risks are not significantly different from one (meaning no increased risk of a crash during HFC).

    He studied hands-free devices embedded in vehicles equipped with OnStar systems with 3-W devices, not portable phones with hands-free capability (such as ear jacks). The method of gathering data differed from that of earlier well-publicized studies indicating elevated relative risks of a crash during HFC. Young suggests that the earlier studies, which used the case-crossover design, had some limitations when applied to call and crash data. One major limitation is that the case-crossover studies depended on driver recall of their driving behavior during previous control intervals in which no crashes occurred. This could lead to bias if part of the “control” period was not actual driving exposure. In Cell Phone Use and Crash Risk: Evidence for Positive Bias (Epidemiology 2012;23:116-118) he reports on driving consistency with GPS data from 439 vehicles in Puget Sound, WA. He suggests that the case-crossover study data should be corrected for part-time driving during the control periods, which would reduce the relative risk estimates closer to the value of one, for no increased risk associated with HFC.

    The methodology by which risk estimates are reached can have a great influence on the magnitude of those estimates and the conclusions which are drawn between purported causes and adverse effects. If Young is correct, HFC may not impose greatly increased risks of crashes during driving. His data apply to OnStar systems, whose embedded system have greater signal strength than portable phones, with fewer dropped calls and clearer speech reducing occasions for driver distraction. Young’s methods were complex, but probably avoided some of the risks of bias which depend on self-report of call time which the earlier studies relied upon.

    It should be emphasized that the risks of a crash during texting are not affected by the Young studies. Eyes off the road and hand use are forms of distraction that are much more clearly causally associated with crashes.

    Counterintuitive data such as Young’s (if you consider them counterintuitive) are part of science. It is not clear that the NTSB has used all available data in making its recommendations.

    Bob’s suggestions for harm reduction have an intuitive appeal which I rather like. “Common sense” is vulnerable to many errors, but we can hardly discontinue its use on that basis alone.

    1. The “risk of an airbag-deploying crash during hands-free conversation (HFC)” was 5.08, not 50.8 as you wrote, which left me wondering why on earth you claimed HFC was no more risky than no HFC.

      1. Damn! 5.08 is correct! Didn’t see the screen very clearly! The relative risk was based on 5.08 all right.

    2. One thing that strikes me is that there could easily be a selection bias in only using data from OnStar-equipped cars. According to the website OnStar costs $20-30/mo., and of course it’s strictly a GM product (though other manufacturers seem to have similar offerings). Are people driving GM cars, and paying a non-trivial monthly fee for OnStar, really a random sample of drivers? I doubt it.

      That’s not just because I have an image of stodgy Cadillac drivers whizzing along the interstate at 45mph. It’s also because people who spend money on safety-enhancing features tend to be safety-conscious. So without more detail on this point I’d be inclined to view this study with some skepticism.

      1. Interesting point about selection bias as it relates to relative risk.

        Relative risks may be modified by factors in addition to those under study; sometimes there are interactions that have to be taken into account because the effect of an exposure is different at different levels of other factors. For example, the relative risk of smoking on lung cancer compared to nonsmoking may be greater in asbestos-exposed people than in non-asbestos exposed people. This has been a matter of some controversy, but it is a familiar example of interaction affecting relative risks.

        The relative risk of hands-free conversation in OnStar drivers was reported to be close to one. The factors that reduce the risk of crashes (safety features on better-designed cars) will protect both drivers who are conversing and drivers who are not conversing. The relative risk of an airbag-deploying collision would be biased only if affluence plays a role analogous to that of asbestos in the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Of course, the absolute risks of crashes will be affected by factors associated with the affluence of the driver: more sophisticated braking systems, better steering systems, and the like. But the effect of conversing vs. not conversing is likely to be similar in cars of differing makes and designs. Lower absolute risks, but similar relative risks, would be expected unless affluent drivers are differently affected by conversing on different hands-free systems. Young reported that the OnStar devices have some of these factors, such as greater signal strength and clearer speech which would reduce driver distraction compared to us poor slobs who have portable cell phones and ear jacks which may fall out of our ear as we sail down the highway. This could bias the relative risk in the ways that Young mentioned.

        The advantage of Young was having prospective data, which are generally favored over retrospective data in establishing causal relationships between exposures and outcomes of all kinds. Byomtov has reasons for concern about selection bias, but the magnitude of the interaction would take some serious effort to extimate. I mean estimate–had to look up at the road for a second and hit the wrong key.

      2. You’re right about the selection bias, but wrong about the result. The difference is not between those with OnStar who used the phones and all those who did not use the phones, but those with OnStar in both groups. So any introduction of selection biased has a very unclear influence on the outcome, but it affects both groups equally. So, unless there is evidence that this particular group is far more risk-averse than an average driver and that this risk aversion affects their phone behavior, there is no reason to believe that there is any change in the outcome because of the supposed selection bias.

        Also, you’re wrong about OnStar being available only in GM cars.

        1. So both talkers and non-talkers were OnStar users? Is that right? Then the selection bias I was concerned about – OnStar users vs. non-OnStar users – goes away. There still might be one based on the general safety-consciousness – a smaller talker/non-talker gap for OnStar users than others, but I agree that’s not clear.

          1. The selection bias goes away, but the possibility of interaction does not. That is, if hands-free conversation is the “exposed” group and no conversation is the “unexposed” group, then for the OnStar system, the relative risk is about one. But there may be system factors which could translate into different relative risks at different levels of that factor. That is why the OnStar reception and sound quality is plausibly different from portable cell phones with ear jacks, for example. The relative risk of hands-free conversation could be more than one with different technology. I plug in my ear jack when driving, in case there is an incoming call; people cannot be expected to know when we are on the road. The wire of the damn thing often seems to get caught up in the seatbelt and sometimes pulls out of my ear—a potential source of distraction not present in the OnStar system. Sometimes I have to strain to hear the caller, another factor that can affect attention to the roadway. If the risk depends on the technology, Young’s data shed no light on that question.

  9. Fuzzy Face,

    Of course there are relatively few fatalities from cell phone use. The accidents that occur while using a cell phone occur during the relatively short time that the phone is actively in use; your exposure to risk is much less than in drunk driving, where you’re incapacitated the whole time you’re at the wheel. But during that short time you’re a serious danger to life and limb.

  10. It’s not science, but I feel distinctly impaired using a handsfree phone behind the wheel and will pull off the road if I have to be on the phone.

    Here’s a bit of science:

    “[Marcel] Just’s research shows that simply listening to someone speak on the other end of a cell phone reduces by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving, compared to driving alone. To determine this, Just used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study participants in a driving simulator. When they were listening to a sentence, they were more likely to weave in their lane than when they were driving undisturbed. The decrease in available brain resources can cause drivers to commit the same type of driving errors that can occur under the influence of alcohol.

    “Another study from Just’s laboratory showed that subjects could not willfully ignore someone speaking to them; the processing of a spoken message was so automatic that it could not be gated out, and continued to affect the brain activation associated with a second concurrent task. This study shows the dangers of cell phone use by drivers cannot be overcome by strategically controlling one’s attention.”

    1. Just reading this appears to have reduced my brain activity by 46% and, therefore, I shall abstain from driving for a week.

  11. The issue is NOT “is talking on the phone while driving dangerous?” it is “is it dangerous enough to be worth the social cost?” And that cost is not ONLY that people will not be able to talk on the phone while driving, it is that this is the sort of thing that increases a sort of general scoff-law attitude to the government, and contempt for other, better thought out, safety laws. Personally I don’t see it as worth the cost (and I say that as someone who doesn’t like to talk on the phone when driving, so I’m not protecting some behavior of value to me).

    If we want to reduce the number of car deaths there are plenty of things we could do. We could ban cars. We could reduce the maximum speed limit to 25 miles per hour. We could turn all cars into tanks. We could insist on really tough driving tests, repeated every year. We could ban drivers under 25 and over 55. etc etc. But we don’t do these because we have some sense of tradeoffs. This proposal strikes me as very much along the lines of the previous examples. And those nanny-staters who insist that it be pushed through — sure, get your wish, save 200 lives a year. And then don’t be surprised when your actions have the totally predictable effect of enlarging the republican majority in congress, allowing for a rollback of general OSHA laws (killing thousand of people), a general rollback of environmental laws (killing hundreds of thousands of people), a general rollback of the health system (killing millions of people.

    1. Eh, vehicle codes are for the states to legislate? I’m not sure how a state changing those would have a discernible effect on Republican representation in Congress?

      1. Katja, for those of us living in the real world, Congress has AMPLE mechanisms by which to force all, or at least almost all, states to legislate the traffic laws they want legislated. Look at how maximum highway speed laws were handled. Look at how drinking age is 21 laws were handled.

        More to the point, once again for those of us living in the real world, it is UNIMPORTANT where the laws are legislated. Regardless of those sorts of technical details, we WILL see campaign ads along the lines of:
        “Are you tired of liberals telling you how to live your life? Telling you what food to eat, what to teach your kids, where you can pray, what you can do while driving your own car? [visuals in the background illustrating each point]
        I’m Michelle Bachmann, and if you elect me to Congress, I’ll do everything I can to stop government interfering in your life.”

        1. Well, in the real world I live in, all attempts to legislate cell phone use so far have been undertaken at the state level. I have not seen Congress getting engaged on this issue and do not seriously expect them to.

          As to: More to the point, once again for those of us living in the real world, it is UNIMPORTANT where the laws are legislated.

          Frankly, I think not passing laws because you believe an extremist would use them as a rhetorical argument in her cause in the end only undermines the rule of law.

          That does not, incidentally, mean that I think this particular kind of law should be passed (for what it’s worth, I’m undecided on the issue). I’m simply saying that the voices of extremists should not shape regular democratic discourse.

  12. In what fantasyland do you live where calling 911 to report a drunk driver would have any result at all? If a cop doesn’t see it, it didn’t happen.

    1. Not true. I’ve done it a couple of times and I know that it had a positive outcome in at least some instances. Don’t forget that such a report automatically generates reasonable suspicion and gives them a license to investigate–i.e., to stop the car and offer a breathalizer test.

  13. I must admit to having talked on the cell phone while driving about 10 times in the past decade, and most of these times involved hands-free. I can’t think of a single one of these ten phone calls that was in any way essential, that could not have waited until I stopped the car. A few months ago I decided that these ten times were enough.

    I do wish that anti-government activists would realize that there are plenty of us not hostile to “government” who are entirely capable of governing ourselves. We are only asking the government to protect us from the people who are not capable of self-government.

  14. And I do wish the pro-government activists would realize that there are plenty of us who don’t want the government minutely dictating every aspect of our lives. Here’s an idea: Write the laws you’d like the government to pass, and obey them without their being enacted. And leave the rest of us alone.

    Individually each little restriction may seem like a tiny thing. But enough tiny raindrops, and you’ve got a flood. Please, stop before we all drown.

    1. In other news: Why the radical libertarian utopia is a “Lord of the Flies” remake.

      I’m not even sure myself whether a cell phone ban would make good law; it may not be effective, and I’d personally start out by raising awareness and making it understood why using a cell phone while driving is dangerous. So, just to be clear, I may even agree that we do not want a law. I just won’t agree for the same reasons.

      This is a classical case where your freedom to move your fists stops where the nose of your neighbor begins; your right to use a cell phone stops where its use may kill other people (for example, by adding a second to the time you need to brake or not seeing someone crossing a road). One can argue whether criminalizing such behavior by law is useful and effective (copyright infringement, drug use, and abortion are classical examples where laws criminalizing them have at best had little effect and may even have made things worse); I have my own doubts here. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with prohibiting behavior that genuinely endangers the safety and lives of others and making your personal liberty of not suffering the inconvenience of having to stop your car for a minute to make a call take a backseat. This is not a “government vs. your personal liberty” thing. It’s your personal liberty of doing whatever you damn well please vs. the personal liberty of another human being to not come to harm at your hands as a result.

    2. Brett, I seldom agree with you, but you often make good points. More than I few times, your comments have caused me to re-examine my views. But not here. You are just wrong.
      Few reasonable, sane people would say that the government has any business interfering in the fact that, for example, three or four times per week I open a bottle of wine and drink half of it. Yes, they can say that, according to the best available research, it is bad for me to do this. But I am over 21, and I am spending my money to buy a legal substance, and at the end of the day it is my liver that will be compromised, and my life expectancy shortened, so the government has not right to tell me what to do. But most of those same reasonable people have no disagreement with the fact that it is illegal for me to get behind the wheel of a car after I have had half a bottle of wine. The road is public space, and the government has the right to regulate safety of public spaces, and people’s behavior behind the wheel of a car has the potential to negatively impact everyone else. Public space.

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