The National Transportation Safety Board stirred up a lot of controversy last week with its recommendation that all usage of cell phones while driving be banned, including the use of hands-free devices. This has led to proposals for the passage of a federal ban on cell phone usage in cars and concern that the federal government will follow past examples and use the threat of withholding highway funds to force states to pass cell phone bans.
This recommendation is based on a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study which reports that 5,474 people were killed in accidents caused by distracted driving. Of that total, 995 of the deaths were in accidents where the distraction was caused by the use of cell phones. Based on these numbers the NTSB has called for a nationwide ban on cell phone use in cars.
What the NTSB does not tell you is that the statistics in the NHTSA report and from other sources may not entirely support the conclusions which they draw or the solution which they recommend. Overall the number of fatal accidents has declined 22% in the five-year period covered in the study. And while the number of distracted driving fatalities is reported as having increased 20%, there is a clear indication that changes in methodology and an increase in the reporting of cases as attributable to distracted driving may account for that trend.
In addition, cell phones were only one of 15 sources of distraction identified in the report and accounted for only 18% of the total cases. Other even more common activities like eating, drinking and smoking in the car accounted for more fatal accidents, but were not included in the call for a ban. The report also does not clearly differentiate between texting and talking on a cell phone, nor does it analyze the difference between talking on a hand held versus a hands free device, yet the NTSB has called for banning all of these uses accross the board, though there is no evidence that there is any real danger associated with using a hands-free cellular device.
A look at another NHTSA report which makes a more comprehensive analysis of traffic safety trends shows that in the 20 years since the use of cell phones became widespread the number of fatal traffic accidents is actually down by 40% and is down by an even larger percentage when indexed for population growth. Taken together with the increase in distracted driving deaths in the last five years when texting has become much more common, this suggests that texting may be the real problem, not cell phone use in general.
With a total of 5.585 million auto accidents per year in the United States, it is reasonable to estimate that about 1 million of those crashes are caused by cell phone use. That is somewhat less than the number of crashes caused annually by deer according to State Farm. Does that mean that the government should make a priority of fencing in all highways or exterminating all deer? There is no evidence of the NTSB suggesting any effort to prevent those equally preventable accidents. Why is the threat of cell phones more important than the many other preventable threats which drivers face?
Then there is the question of whether the number of deaths attributable to cell phone use is even statistically significant. With over 33,808 traffic fatalities in 2009 and only 995 cell phone related deaths, we’re talking about 2.9% of all fatalities blamed on cell phones compared to 32% of traffic deaths involving alcohol. That’s a far more serious and equally preventable danger, though draconian solutions to that problem like cars which won’t start without a passing breathalyzer test are also pretty unappealing.
Weighed against all of this are the undeniable benefits of convenience and productivity associated with cell phone use. No one wants to measure the cost of human lives against convenience, but nonetheless in the real world we do it every day. Being able to make calls from the car without the distractions of the office or home has a great appeal to the typical American workaholic.
The basic truth is that the NTSB is grossly exaggerating the seriousness of the threat of cell phone use by drivers. It’s far down the scale of threats to public health and safety and it does not make sense to make it a legislative priority at a federal or a state level. Obviously you should be careful about all sorts of distractions in the car. Just as you should keep an eye out for deer on the highway and not drive at all after you have been drinking. But ultimately all of these are issues of personal responsibility, not problems which rise to the level where they threaten the “general welfare” as defined in the Constitution and justify government intervention. This nation faces many serious problems. This is just not one of them.