Will a ban on hand’s free phones make driving safer?

The National Traffic Safety Board is very concerned about distracted driving. Their research and testimony was instrumental in shaping statutes in 35 states that ban texting while driving and the 9 states that ban the use of handheld phones (many more states have partial restrictions). If you have ever tried using a tiny keyboard (for example, typing a destination into a GPS device) while gliding down a highway or even a side street, then you know it is very risky to say the least.

Studies on the effects of laws are often ambiguous, because so many extraneous variables are at play before and after the law goes into effect. But in the case of texting while driving, studies are conclusive. Applying this data, I am reasonably confident that at least 3 people reading this blog in the week it was posted are alive because of one of these laws.

When the NTSB first suggested that handheld use of cell phones should be banned, I was surprised at the specificity of their wrath. Don’t we already punish “Driving while distracted”? Keeping laws general seems so much simpler and fair. Why should a cell phone user be restricted but not the lady in the next lane applying mascara or the guy drinking coffee and shaving at the same time?

Perhaps one reason for a targeted restriction is because the technology is newer and more insipid. It takes a few years before most drivers recognize how dangerous it is to hold a portable device while driving. In my opinion, a phone is used in a very different manner than a cup of coffee. Doing those other things (applying makeup and shaving) is just plain stupid. These things require that your eyes and full attention be on the mirror and not the road.

Perhaps a ban on cell phones is palatable because it relieves traffic officers and courts from the vagaries of interpretation. Either way, I accept the restriction. I make a serious effort to ensure that an automatic hands free connection is established each time that I enter my car. I wasn’t truly happy with wireless speakerphones until I found a simple and effective Bluetooth speaker that recognized when I was inside the vehicle. The detection of an occupant is a major step forward, because it ensures that calls from home are not hijacked by the device in my parked car.

But now, the NTSB has gone too far. They are recommending a complete ban on the presence of mobile phones in cars. What’s next? Why not Prohibit drivers from talking with passengers? (Apparently, they believe that talking with a caller is more dangerous). Even if studies demonstrate a link between talking and safety, the research technique cannot possibly factor in the dramatically increased safety and reduced driving of those who keep in touch with business and loved ones, especially if the call pertains to their reason for driving in the first place.

Consider an example: Suppose that the research conclusively demonstrates that a call doubles the chance of a serious accident from 1 in 150,000 miles to 2 in 150,000 miles. What if the call removed the car from the road because the whole trip is unnecessary? Is that covered by the study? For example, suppose that you are rushing to the airport to pick up an elderly relative who is ill and forgot critical medicine. They don’t speak English and – well – you get the idea… You are under stress, speeding and very concerned about someone else’s safety. Anyone will acknowledge that the risk of an accident is heightened. You are aware of this, but you are good driver. You are not tired and you weigh the risk against your personal mission.

Now suppose that this relative called you from another airport. They missed their flight and they will not be arriving as expected. But wait! They ran into the family doctor at the airport. He has the required medicine and will even give Grandpa a lift home. I realize that the example is a bit contrived and melodramatic, but the gist is broadly applicable. Accepting the call in the car not only removes a source of stress, it makes the entire trip unnecessary. While not every call saves tires, gas, stress and lives—many calls make business and personal life more efficient. In turn, this reduces stress and the need to drive. The relationships between these things are intangible and difficult to measure, but the net effect is very tangible. It would be difficult to incorporate control mechanisms that relate to these factors and almost impossible to set controls and measure results. (How is overall traffic safety influenced by reducing the need to drive? The influence goes beyond the individual driver!) They are perhaps more important components of overall safety than all the things that can be measured.

Banning the use of all telephone communication in cars is not just foolish, it is political idiocy. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks so. If you don’t agree with me after the very slightest of reflection then post a comment. But be prepared for my retort. In my opinion, anyone who disagrees with me just hasn’t thought enough about the issue! (Eventually, you will get it right!)

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2 thoughts on “Will a ban on hand’s free phones make driving safer?

  1. OK, I’ll bite. Why “Poppycock!”? Because you don’t like the conclusion and feel it impinges on your personal freedom? Further in the “not the only one” link the author attempts to equate the freedom to talk on the phone while driving to the freedom to smoke or to be obese. It is interesting that he didn’t list another “freedom” that we, as a society, have now decided is unreasonable, namely, the freedom to drive while intoxicated. That is more analogous than the other ones, as it directly affects other people.

    Look, I’ll admit it, I drive while talking on the phone, as I’m sure you do. But be honest, and ask yourself if you’re as likely to notice that idiot cyclist who is riding without a light at night while you’re trying to arrange where to meet your wife for dinner. And no, it isn’t the same as talking to a passenger in your car, or to listening to the radio. Neither of these activities is as cognitively demanding as carrying on a phone conversation over an imperfect channel. If you don’t admit it, then frankly, I don’t believe you, and most traffic studies are on my side. (BTW, I recommend Tom Vanderbilt’s book “Traffic” — a survey of literature on traffic for lay audiences.)

  2. Hello Paul. As always, your comments are insightful, intellectual and clearly presented. I like a good rebuttal and I invite counterpoint.

    I added the comment “Poppycock!” next to a citation supporting a link between hands-free talking and reduced safety. Of course, it is my way of saying that I don’t believe the interpretation of study results. In the original post, I offerred a reason for skepticism (to put it mildly), but I can elaborate…

    Can hands-free dialogue lead to more traffic accidents? Perhaps–if you strip away the real world intangibles. But I believe that it would be extraordinarily difficult to construct a study that weighs increased driving risk against the safety benefits of placing & receiving important calls. Receiving an important call can lead to reduced stress, less speeding, far less searching for road signs and house numbers, and – most importantly – less driving altogether! Although it might be possible to set controls for these things, I bet that no one has made a serious attempt to measure them in scientific studies — or even in practical trials. Even if someone claimed to accommodate these intangibles, I would be skeptical of the test bed. It seems so difficult and subjective that my skepticism could only be satiated by massive and credible peer review. The task is just too d*mn difficult! So…

    So, failing a believable test bed (one that accommodates intangibles), I suggest that we apply the “common sense” test. And this, my friend, is where we disagree. You feel that talking across “an imperfect channel” (your words) and about meeting your wife for dinner (your scenario) is more dangerous than shouting above road noise and making eye contact with kids in a rear view mirror, as they spill ice cream on leather upholstery and poke the cat with a stick (my scenarios). It’s all relative — but I, for one, find talking to my therapist during a long drive is a very good way to avoid shooting the guy who just cut me off at the stop sign. I bet that they didn’t consider that scenario in their study!!

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